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Sexual Predators Are Everywhere Too Much Power Resides


My only take about the Harvey Weinstein situation is that there are so many people like him in positions of power throughout the nation and the world and that while exposing each and every one of his crimes is really important, I hope this conversation is more about the general attitude of sexual harassment and assault than about Weinstein the individual. We all know this sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood and many, many other places. I wonder how many movie moguls, directors, etc., are sweating bullets right now, waiting for their exposure. Hopefully all of the jerks who are guilty of this crap.

But it’s hardly just Hollywood. It’s also everyone where too much power resides in a single individual. That can be with professors, especially with graduate students. In fact, I once turned an old male professor into the Title IX office for making sexually lewd comments to young female students after class. Turns out this was a repeat offense, as unshocking at that is. I was furious and my first year female TA who witnessed this was mortified. Welcome to academia.

It can also be in union culture. So I was not all surprised to hear that SEIU’s architect of the Fight for $15 campaign is a serial sexual predator.

A top labor movement figure who led the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign was suspended this week after complaints from staffers about his conduct toward women, BuzzFeed News has learned.

The Service Employees International Union suspended Executive Vice President Scott Courtney after “questions were raised … relating to our union’s ethical code and anti-nepotism policy,” Sahar Wali, a spokesperson for the powerful union, said in a statement Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Mary Kay Henry, the union’s international president, wrote in an email to her staff that “questions were raised about Executive Vice President Scott Courtney relating to a romantic relationship between a staff person and a supervisor. Such relationships are governed by our union’s ethical code and anti-nepotism policy.”

Amid an ongoing investigation by SEIU general counsel Nicole Berner, Henry said in the email, obtained by BuzzFeed News, “I suspended Executive Vice President Scott Courtney from his assigned duties as an officer of SEIU on Monday.”

This past weekend, Courtney married a union staffer. Courtney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We are taking this investigation very seriously,” Wali told BuzzFeed News on Thursday. “As credible allegations come in, we are pursuing them as part of this investigation.”

The complaints about Courtney had been an open secret among women in the high-profile Fight for $15 campaign within the union, which is itself led by one of the most visible women in American labor. The SEIU lies at the heart of the US labor movement’s attempt to transform itself from a traditional trade union body into a broad force for social and progressive change for union members and nonunion members alike.

The Fight for $15, which is focused on raising the wages of a low-income, largely female fast-food workforce, has been the highest-profile symbol of that effort, and won dramatic victories from New York to Arizona to California. But women inside the union say the internal culture of the Fight for $15 contrasts starkly with the values Henry and the union preach.

“Our union has been fighting for justice for working families, immigrants, women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people of all faiths and backgrounds in their work places, in our communities and in our economy and democracy,” Henry wrote in her email. “Just as we fight to make change in our society, we know that our organization should reflect the kind of just society that we fight for across the country.”

“In the weeks ahead, I will be taking concrete steps to ensure there is an open and safe space process for staff to discuss these and related concerns,” Henry wrote.

Seven people who have worked with Courtney, including current and former SEIU staffers, told BuzzFeed News the top official had a history of sexual relationships with young women staffers — who were subsequently promoted, they said.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation within the labor movement.

Two also said no significant action was taken after staffers reported abuse and sexual harassment by supervisors — who reported to Courtney. “Nothing happened on those campaigns without Scott knowing,” one of the sources told BuzzFeed News.

More here. I am not going to comment on Courtney marrying his staffer except to wish his new wife luck. But this is a deeply disturbing pattern. And it’s very easy for top union staffers to get away with this because they have a lot of autonomy and power over their own workplaces. The secret about the union movement is that the least empowered workers and most exploited workers around are actually union staffers, many of which are expected to work very long hours, be subjected to abuse from supervisors, and live under their thumbs, thus creating the atmosphere where this kind of sexual predation can happen.

This one is a bit personal for me. In 2000, I was on the fence between getting my PhD in History and working as an organizer for the foreseeable future. The only reason I started my PhD in the fall is that the person I was with at the time decided she wanted to get her PhD and I agreed to follow her. I was leaning the other way. But in the meantime, I was having some success as a young organizer and got attention from some of the more established people in the community. This led to me attending the AFL-CIO 3-day Organizing Institute workshop and an offer to go into the longer training program, where they start making real investments in you. I would have done this too, had I not been heading out to New Mexico. Anyway, in lieu of this, the SEIU local in the state wanted to hire me for a few months to help out.

It was a disaster, easily the worst job I ever had. And this had everything to do with the head of the local, who was not only a horrifying tyrant and generally disgusting human being, but who it turns out was also someone who saw young female activists as sexual conquests. I was horrified by this guy almost immediately, for not only did he yell and bluster all the time, but he had absolutely nothing for me to do and so it was a total waste of my time and of the workers’ resources, even though I was making very little money. Luckily, an older steelworker who was organizing for SEIU after leaving the Alabama mills took me under his wing and made the experience marginally tolerable while apologizing to me that this was my first exposure to the union movement. Those two months completely killed any desire to be a union organizer. And, combined with two bad activist experiences in the year after I moved to New Mexico, basically ended my period as an activist, which is too bad. Blame me if you want for being soft. That would be the union way to do it–not treat its own workers with respect. But like everyone should be when they can, I have a very low tolerance for poor treatment.

So to say the least, I was horrified but not surprised when I found out soon after I left the job for New Mexico that this guy, who was probably in his mid to late 40s at the time, not in good physical shape, and most importantly, married with kids, had physically touched a young student activist friend in her home in an attempt to get her to sleep with him. She rebuffed it, but confirmed everything I believed about the man and later union connections with SEIU confirmed that he was roundly seen as a terrible human being. At some point, he left that local, which is now headed by the first union mentor I ever had and who was a very good person to me and to everyone I knew.

Again, any time you have people with nearly unfettered power over people at work, whether young activists or young organizers, abuse will happen. Some of that will be sexual predation. In the union world, organized labor needs to have much stronger internal staffer power to resist exploitation from their own bosses. The film world is even harder. I don’t even know where the solution begins there. But for unions, this cannot be acceptable. I am glad SEIU suspended Courtney. I also wonder, like with Weinstein, how many powerful people knew and didn’t care or did care and did nothing.

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