City workers bring the power of #MeToo to Seattle

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On Valentine’s Day, a group of determined city workers and their supporters braved chilling winds and rain at a “Shout-out for Justice and Roses” in front of Seattle City Hall. Organized by the grass-roots Seattle Silence Breakers (SSB), the rally highlighted widespread sexual harassment and discrimination in city employment.

Silence Breaker Leslie Wagoner is inspired by the growing campaign, saying, “It’s been a long time coming, and it’s been done in the face of so much resistance.”

Union shop steward Lisa Frasene asserted proudly, “We’re already getting more done than all the city departments put together!” Despite pledges to put an end to predatory behavior by the new female mayor and many City Councilmembers, not one attended or sent a statement to the Feb. 14 rally, though all were invited.

Energized by its united action, SSB is working to take the national #MeToo movement to the next vital step — winning lasting changes on the job for women, people of color and other targeted groups.

From outrage to action. Seattle Silence Breakers grew out of a Radical Women (RW) meeting in November at which RW Organizer Gina Petry analyzed the explosive global revelations of sexual harassment and the often-overlooked class and race aspects involved. She attributed the persistence of abuse to the second-class status of women under capitalism and discussed means of fighting for change.

Women and men at the gathering added deeply moving stories. One, Beth Rocha, had been profiled in local media for the year-long fight she and coworkers waged against an abusive culture in their department at Seattle City Light, the municipal electrical utility. Rocha’s sexual harassment complaint was still being sidelined by a protracted and biased internal investigation. A Black man told of sexual bullying he had suffered, showing that the issue spans color and gender.

Also present at the RW meeting were Seattle chapter president Denise Krownbell and shop steward Frasene from Rocha’s union, Professional and Technical Employees (PTE) Local 17, the largest city union. They were eager to get involved in defending the largely female workforce in city offices.

Several retired City Light tradeswomen and RW members spoke of the strategies they had used to fight gender and race bias. Participants came away with the determination to take action together.

Breaking silence. News of the undertaking spread by word of mouth at city workplaces. Lunchtime meetings drew growing numbers of women and men, people of diverse races, LGBTQ folks, workers at various departments, members of different unions and unrepresented employees, retirees, and feminist activists.

Several RW members in SSB are current or retired city workers whose community and workplace organizing experience is much appreciated by the group. Some had helped found the Committee for Equal Rights at City Light, which fought discrimination in the 1980s and ’90s. Another, Doreen McGrath, led two successful union drives for city tech workers.

At initial meetings, participants shared experiences, developed points of unity, and chose as co-chairs PTE Seattle chapter president Krownbell and RW Organizer Petry. The issues they are fighting include name-calling (“bitch,” “cunt”), suggestive gestures, intrusive questions (“What color panties are you wearing?”), and uninvited touching including knee-grabbing, kissing and spanking. Complaints are followed by retaliation, ignoring or discrediting victim and witness testimony; rare settlements have nondisclosure clauses and bar victims from future city employment.

The group agreed to make decisions by majority vote and to fight racism, homophobia and other forms of bias in addition to sexual harassment. The SSB unity statement takes aim at the bullying and retaliation faced by those who make complaints. It calls on the city to implement wage equity and “develop a workforce that reflects and represents the diversity of the region’s residents.”

The newly mobilized activists are developing effective remedies. Demands include offering leave time to victims and moving the accused perpetrator to another worksite if the injured party feels threatened. (Current practice usually penalizes victims by moving them.) SSB calls for holding managers accountable for harassment. It urges that the city’s Office for Civil Rights be independent of the mayor and City Council and empowered to carry out investigations and enact system-wide changes.

Women continue to come out of the shadows, relieved to find a place where their grievances are taken seriously.

Moving forward. SSB is publicly pushing to get results. Members have attended City Council meetings, offering testimony about hostile and misogynist workplaces, mistreatment of older workers, bullying and more. As a result of local and national pressure, the City Council is considering modifications to Seattle codes dealing with sexual harassment.

Tia Jones, an African American worker at the city, looks forward to helping by representing SSB on a new interdepartmental team established by the mayor to rewrite policies relating to harassment.

The city has now released information on the $4.4 million it paid in discrimination settlements over the last decade. But it hasn’t detailed how many of these involved sexual abuse or the number of cases filed but not upheld.

Readers can help by pushing for this data’s release and calling for an independent, strengthened Office for Civil Rights. Write Mayor Jenny Durkan at jenny.durkan@seattle.gov and the full City Council at council@seattle.gov. Keep track of developments at facebook.com/seattlesilencebreakers/.

RW’s 1990 paper “Working Women: Sparkplugs of Labor” discussed how “wage disparities, job segregation, racial and sex harassment, sexual abuse, and pervasive dehumanization” shape women workers into being the most ready to fight for change. The Seattle Silence Breakers are testament to that truth.

Contact Seattle Radical Women or the author at RWseattle@mindspring.com.

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