The same labor union accused of breeding a culture of horrific treatment of working women also represents student workers across the UC and CSU systems. Parents, regents, donors, university leaders, public officials and faculty should be demanding answers before the next attack occurs.
The union in question — the United Auto Workers union, or UAW — has proven in recent weeks that it is unqualified and ill-equipped in protecting victims from sexual harassment. The union’s tone-deaf responses to a drumbeat of internet videos and victim testimonies documenting shameful and grotesque behavior only increases fears over its inherent conflict of interest of attempting to represent both the attacker and the victim.
The story starts in Chicago, where in 2017, the Ford Motor Company paid more than $10 million to settle charges of racial and sexual harassment at its UAW-represented Chicago plants. Women at the plant were subject to “blatant” and “severe” sexual harassment of the most disgusting variety. Lewd comments were common, and women were groped , harassed and pressured to have sex in exchange for workplace favors.
Instead of protecting employees, the UAW was complicit in the problem. The union’s top official told one employee to get down on her knees in exchange for her job. Union reps operated with seeming impunity; when one female employee tried to report sexual harassment, she was told it didn’t qualify because “he only did it one time.” It gets worse: When Ford suspended the union’s plant chairman after the harassment complaint was filed, the UAW filed a grievance against the suspension in an effort to reinstate him as chairman.
You read that correctly: Faced with a #MeToo moment of its own, the union chose to protect the alleged harasser rather than the harassed.
Although the problems at the Chicago plant have existed for years, they received new attention in a New York Times expose in December. Some of the women in the plant testified before an Illinois task force in January to describe the still-present harassment at the plant. Aldermen in Chicago have proposed hearings where Ford and UAW executives would have to testify under oath about what protections they are implementing to protect female employees.
Pause here: You might be thinking, yes, this is all terrible, but what does it have to do with the UC and Berkeley communities? Here’s where it gets interesting: Two UAW Locals that represent the UC system — Local 2865 and Local 5810 — are based Berkeley. If you’re a student, you can’t miss them: They’ve organized rallies, strikes, walkouts, conventions and campaigns in support of a multitude of causes — including the prevention of sexual harassment on campus.
But when the New York Times blew the lid off of the biggest UAW sexual harassment scandal in decades — a scandal that’s apparently ongoing and to which the UAW president was forced to respond to — these UAW Locals were nowhere to be found. There were no rallies, no walkouts and no public petitions to their parent union. From my search of their Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, there wasn’t even a social media post on the subject.
When these women in Chicago needed a #MeToo ally against their union, the response from UC’s UAW Locals was #NotMyProblem.
I’m sure that some individual students represented by the union were horrified by the happenings in Chicago. But the union raises larger questions with its silence. For instance, how does the union handle its own inherent conflict of interest situations when a student union member alleges that a union leader (or fellow student union member) has engaged in improper behavior? More to the point: How many times has the UAW been asked to investigate or resolve a grievance involving harassment complaints by student members?
Students, parents, professors, alumni and public officials deserve an answer to these questions.
Given what’s happening in Chicago, UAW representation would appear to be horrible for female employees in Bay Area or anywhere else. If the union’s first and foremost concern is to defend its own rather than protect victims, then it’s time for greater accountability for the students’ representatives.
Matthew Thomas is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a minor in public policy.