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Labor Took on “Bad Bosses” Long Before #MeToo

Hotel and restaurant employees paved the way for today's fight against workplace sexual harassment and violence.

Housekeeping employees protest against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn outside a New York City courthouse in 2011. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

“Will There Ever Be a #MeToo-Style Movement for Bad Bosses?” New York magazine asked readers in a tone-deaf fog of obliviousness last month. The piece itself was fairly benign, addressing the long-standing and profoundly dubious cult of the genius boss. The trouble was with the headline—which, it must be noted, was almost certainly chosen by a New York editor, not the writer, feminist author Rebecca Traister. Just moments after the piece was blasted out on Twitter, Labor Twitter blasted right back. As veteran labor journalist Sarah Jaffe replied in an apt tone of disbelief, “It’s called the labor movement?” 

A hasty headline change ensued (though the original lives on in aeturnum via the article’s URL). But the original slight to decades of concerted organizing and strike actions to curb the reckless conduct of bosses across a wide range of fronts still rankles, and for good reason. To be sure, #MeToo activism has spurred greater awareness of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, but well before journalists were documenting the high-profile predations of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer et al., much of the day-to-day struggle against the sexual trespasses of workplace managers came at the behest of many workers—particularly those who are women and nonbinary—fighting off the discriminatory and harassing behaviors of their bosses. Traister’s article paid lip service to time-honored labor tactics like collective bargaining to win better working conditions. But it’s worth noting that, for many people, a safer workplace doesn’t just mean a stricter focus on OSHA or longer bathroom breaks; it means one that is free of sexual harassment and violence

Hotel workers have been on the front lines of this particular fight for years—and it has taken a toll. Between 2005 and 2015, hotel and restaurant workers filed at least 5,000 sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing laws against workplace discrimination. As Sandra Kensbock, the lead author of a 2014 study on sexual harassment in the hotel industry, wrote, “We found guest-initiated sexual harassment to be pervasive and normalized within the hotel workplace. The low status of hospitality workers renders them particularly vulnerable, with the power held by the instigator being a critical component of sexual harassment.”

As recently as 2018, Annelise Orleck, professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of We Are All Fast-Food Workers Nowtold The Guardian that 66 percent of hotel workers say they have experienced sexual harassment. What’s more, many hotel workers are immigrant women of color—a status that makes it likely they’ll face retaliation for reporting abuses at work. (This threat is especially great for undocumented workers, who risk being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation raids.) Despite such challenges, hotel workers represented by unions like Unite Here have made impressive strides, using collective bargaining efforts and public pressure campaigns to call out management abuses. These initiatives have yielded one of the most significant, tangible workplace wins of the #MeToo era: the panic button. 

The panic button is elegant in its simplicity. Hotel workers, particularly housekeepers and cleaners, are often on their own while performing their labor—a vulnerable position in view of the gendered, and often racial, power dynamics at play between them and the guests whose rooms they’re cleaning. As the AFL-CIO noted on its blog, “There is a clear power imbalance between men who pay for hotel rooms and the women, often immigrants or women of color, who clean their rooms alone.” So Unite Here workers in hotels can now carry a panic button—a GPS-enabled device that can be easily concealed in clothing—to alert and direct hotel security guards whenever they feel unsafe on the job. It’s akin to the line of devices marketed to seniors that transmit the message “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” except here its main purpose is to shut down creeps and protect workers from harm.  

Hotel staff in several cities have been outfitted with panic buttons over the past several years. Thanks to Unite Here Local 6 in New York City, each of its hundreds of unionized hotels installed panic buttons back in 2013. Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, California, followed suit, as did the states of Illinois and New Jersey

But their adoption has spiked significantly since 2017, when Sandra Pezquada, a former dishwasher at a California luxury resort, came forward with a groundbreaking lawsuit about the sexual harassment she’d endured on the job. Her suit coincided with the rise of the #MeToo movement, and Time magazine profiled her in 2017 as one of the lead persons of the year in its collective “Silence Breakers” package, which was devoted to rampant sexual harassment in the American workplace. Pezquada eventually settled her sexual harassment lawsuit for $250,000. Her case echoes the 2011 ordeal suffered by Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel worker who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, of sexual assault. But unlike Diallo, Pezquada wasn’t dragged through a media circus or maligned for bringing down a rich and powerful man. This time, in the midst of the #MeToo uprising, people listened.

After the Culinary Union—a Nevada labor powerhouse—included a demand for panic buttons in its 2018 contract negotiations with several major casino operators, the device began to spread throughout many of the city’s hotels. The change came not a moment too soon in a city where a survey conducted by Unite Here’s Culinary and Bartender Unions of more than 10,000 Las Vegas casino workers found that 27 percent of hotel housekeepers said they had been sexually harassed on the job, and 53 percent said a guest had done something to make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Though workers are skeptical that management will follow through without the legal obligation of a union contract, the Marriott, Hyatt, IHG, Wyndham, and Hilton hotel groups have also pledged to provide their workers with panic buttons by 2020.

Of course the threat of sexual harassment and assault on the job is by no means confined to the hotel industry.  And workers are fighting back with renewed focus and militance. According to the Fight for $15 campaign, four in 10 women working in fast-food restaurants experience sexual harassment on the job, and industry leader McDonald’s has become a particular flashpoint in the struggle. For now at least, the fast-food industry remains largely nonunion—but McDonald’s workers have found an ally in the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, whose deep pockets have helped fund multiple legal challenges lodging charges of widespread on-the-job harassment that workers have mounted against McDonald’s.  

Earlier this year, the fund joined with the ACLU and Fight for $15 campaign to file 23 new complaints against the corporation, including 20 that were sent to the EEOC—the third round of such complaints that workers have sent in as many years. Deprived of traditional union-backed measures to hold management liable for its actions, these workers have had to use unorthodox means to force the company into accountability—itself a key argument for unionizing the industry—for what they describe as a culture of retaliation, fear, violence, and abuse. According to NPR, as of November 21, female employees of the fast-food giant have filed more than 50 claims, and charges of harassment against male co-workers and bosses are pending against McDonald’s in the courts as well as at the EEOC. Beyond the charges of sexual harassment, workers have also mounted complaints alleging that the company failed to protect them from aggressive or violent customers. In one recent lawsuit filed by 17 workers from the Chicago area, the plaintiffs described several instances in which a customer climbed on top of the counter waving a gun.  

The company has responded to these allegations by stating, “McDonald’s takes seriously its responsibility to provide and foster a safe working environment for our employees, and along with our franchisees, continue to make investments in training programs that uphold safe environments for customers and crew members. In addition to training, McDonald’s maintains stringent policies against violence in our restaurants.” The company has also pointed to a new suite of anti-harassment training programs it has rolled out in response to the many sexual harassment lawsuits levied against it, saying that, “There is a deeply important conversation around safe and respectful workplaces in communities throughout the U.S. and around the world, and McDonald’s is demonstrating its continued commitment to this issue.”

Over the past several years, workers have drawn attention to the problem by staging rallies, strikes, and protests in cities where McDonald’s has major operations. The most recent such action came last May in New York; there, demonstrating workers were joined by supporters, longtime Fight for $15 allies, and several current and former presidential candidates, including Senator Bernie Sanders, Governor Jay Inslee, Julián Castro, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. One of the biggest roadblocks that workers face in their quest for justice is also the reason why it’s been so difficult to unionize their industry. Like many large fast-food corporations, McDonald’s operates on a franchise model. Individual operators run more than 90 percent of its locations, and corporate headquarters cannot force them to take any specific action or adopt any specific policies. (And if workers wanted to form a union, the company’s dispersed ownership structure means that they’d need to organize each individual location, one by one.) That’s why, for now, public pressure and solidarity remain the  most effective weapons McDonald’s workers can wield against the McBosses. 

The company has made gestures toward rectifying the problem and “encouraged” its franchisees to cooperate—but in November, McDonald’s chief executive, Steve Easterbrook, was fired in the wake of reports that he was violating company policy by having a relationship with a subordinate. The irony ran thick. As Tanya Harrell, a McDonald’s worker and Fight for $15 leader based in New Orleans, told The New York Times when the news of Easterbrook’s departure broke, “It’s clear McDonald’s culture is rotten from top to bottom. McDonald’s needs to sit down with worker-survivors and put them at the center of any solution.”

Outside of fast food, other restaurant-industry workers are organizing on a more local level. In Philadelphia earlier this year, workers joined forces to launch the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health (CRSH) project to provide free anti-harassment trainings to restaurant employers and workers in order to combat the intolerably high rates of sexual harassment in the industry. The worker-led coalition includes a variety of legal and workers’ rights organizations, as well as the Philadelphia chapters of Unite Here, the Restaurant Opportunity Center, and Philadelphia Against Sexual Violence, and has also partnered with a number of popular restaurants. 

In addition to the trainings, CRSH is currently conducting a survey asking restaurant workers to assess their experience based on how customers, co-workers, management, and owners treat them, in and outside of work. The coalition plans to publish the survey’s findings in April. “In my experience, hospitality workers are desensitized to harassment for a few reasons, including pervasive objectification and dependence on tip work,” says Hanna Garrity, a longtime restaurant worker and the lead on CRSH’s Workers Committee. “In my years as a server, I have experienced sexual harassment in many different restaurant spaces, so I wanted to be a part of a mission that was striving to create safer spaces in the hospitality industry for everyone.” 

Garrity emphasizes that lawsuits and legal challenges aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every labor dispute, and that building worker power—and protecting fellow workers—can take many forms. “We are taking an organizing approach to sexual harassment, instead of a purely legal approach, to build worker solidarity and worker power,” she explains. “The experience of being sexually harassed is disempowering, and the legal system is disempowering. But if workers come together, we can demand training or better policies, and that can open the door to other fights.”

That’s one big lesson labor has taken from #MeToo—and vice versa. Sexual harassment and violence in the workplace is a pervasive, horrific problem that continues to rear its ugly head in every possible industry. But by marshaling resources and approaching from every angle—through unions, through legal funds, through grassroots organizing—it can be defeated. As hundreds of low-wage, marginalized, but determined and disciplined workers across the country have made clear, time’s up.