Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘racial diversity’

The Fight Against Racism Starts in the Union

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

“In your union or workplace, what’s a situation where you’ve observed or experienced racism?” That’s the first question we ask people to discuss, in groups of three, as part of a Race and Labor training that our state labor council has offered for 29 local unions and labor councils so far in Washington state.

Some stories are dramatic, like the member of color who was threatened with physical violence after winning union office. Other are more subtle, the kind of incidents that can weigh on you when they’re repeated over and over. A Black union staffer often interacts with members by phone or email; when she later meets them in person, she is told, “Oh, you’re not how I pictured you.”

After one or two people share powerful stories, other hands start shooting into the air.

This workshop isn’t simply a diversity training. It’s designed to look at the history of racism in our country and in our labor movement. We talk about how racism shows up in our workplaces, our family and community life, and even our unions; how racial categories historically have served the interests of employers; and how divide-and-conquer hampers organizing today.

Once we’ve accepted those truths, the next question is, what can leaders do to change them? The workshop is very practical. We want folks to leave with real ideas for what they can do.

Participants brainstorm solutions in four areas: bargaining, organizing, union culture, and community connections. We also discuss how to answer union sisters and brothers who aren’t convinced racial justice has anything to do with union politics. One small-group activity is to write a persuasive speech you might give to your executive board.

People leave feeling hopeful. One older gentleman told me he’d been through a number of diversity and racial equity workshops, but this was the only one that made him feel he could do something about it. Another person said she’d been afraid even to talk about racism, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Now she knew how to start.

How we started

Our state isn’t very diverse—and its labor leaders are even less so. Out of 15 central labor councils in Washington, only one has a principal officer who is a person of color. Only a handful of the 600 affiliate union locals do, either.

The project started with a resolution that passed our convention in 2015. It called on the state labor council president to take up AFL-CIO President Trumka’s call to have “a serious and open-ended conversation about what we can do, about what we should do” about race and the labor movement.

The resolution made clear that we should discuss how racism affects not just our individual beliefs, but also the policies and practices that shape our unions. For instance, who gets into the union—is it tough unless your father or uncle was a member? Who is considered for leadership roles?

A special committee convened in 2016. With the help of longtime labor activist Bill Fletcher and our state’s Labor Education Research Center, the committee developed a seven-hour Race and Labor workshop.

Get leaders on board

Some of our largest affiliates have sent leaders and staff through the training, including Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, the state AFSCME federation, and the state Teachers (AFT).

It’s not easy to sell a seven-hour workshop to union officers. But we ask them to resist the urge to modify the workshop to fit a 90-minute conference schedule. Real conversations take time.

Some leaders have a natural inclination to stick to lunchbox issues: wages, benefits, and working conditions. But here’s one argument why this topic matters to a union’s self-interest: Before the Janus decision, a large public sector union did a national member survey. It found that union favorability was the highest among African American workers—but also that, given the opportunity, they were the most likely to leave the union.

To me that suggests that many African-American workers recognize the value of the labor movement, but don’t see a place for themselves in our institutions. I suspect other people of color may feel the same way.

It’s personal for me. As I often tell people, it was my mom’s union job that got us off welfare and gave her the dignity that comes from being able to pay bills and provide for your family. So I believe in the labor movement. I know what a difference it can make. If we continue not addressing racism, we create a weakness in our movement. I don’t want to let that happen.

Goal: 100 percent

In 2017 we offered our first two-day train-the-trainer workshops with 100 union leaders and staff. We did it twice more this spring.

The first day, participants go through the Race and Labor workshop. We ask union principal officers to attend this first day, so that they “buy in” to the process. The second day, principal officers may leave, while the facilitators assigned from their locals (usually union staffers) stick around to learn the curriculum, including the goals of each section, and to discuss how adults learn.

Labor council delegates passed our Race and Labor 2.0 resolution in 2017, moving into wider implementation. They set ambitious goals—by the end of 2018, half our union affiliates’ executive board and staff members should have attended the workshop; by 2019, threequarters; and by 2020, all of them.

They also resolved that we should train 30 “certified trainers” ready to take the workshop around the state. We’re developing that training now.

The next step is a Race and Labor summit in September. We’ll be bringing together 100 young workers of color plus allies to develop a toolkit that might include contract language, sample policies, and plans for additional training. We’ll ask, “If we didn’t have to deal with institutional racism in our movement, what would that look like—and how do we get there?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: April Sims is the political and strategic campaigns director of the Washington State Labor Council. She presented a version of the Race and Labor workshop at the 2018 Labor Notes Conference.

You do not have a constitutional right to be extremely sexist at work

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

A male software engineer at Google, James Damore, wrote a 10-page memo in opposition to hiring practices that consider racial and gender diversity in tech, arguing that women were unable to do the same kind of work as their male peers. Days after it was circulated throughout the company and leaked to the press, he was fired.

Now many journalists, activists, and even politicians are arguing that he was unfairly punished for expressing his ideas, with some going so far as to say the employee was banished for “thought crimes.”

In this case, Damore’s thoughts were that women were biologically unsuited for advancement in tech in a number of ways and that women deserved their current status. In his anti-diversity screed, the software engineer decided to list personality traits that he says women have more of. Here is one:

Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

He also wrote that women have “higher agreeableness” and “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness,” and that this is why women tend to have a harder time negotiating salary. He does not acknowledge that research shows again and again there is a social cost for women who negotiate for higher salaries.

In addition to saying that women will always have these specific qualities that prevent them from advancing in their careers, he flat out writes, “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.”

He also wrote, “However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices.” He listed mentoring, programs, and classes “only for people with a certain gender or race.”

Men from all sides of the political spectrum weighed in to argue that he should not have been fired.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) tweeted out a National Review article with the headline, “Google Fires Employee Who Dared Challenge its Ideological Echo Chamber.” Julian Assange condemned the decision as “censorship.” Tim Miller, co-founder of the America Rising PAC, said Damore is being banished for “thought crimes.” Jeet Heer, senior editor at The New Republic, said the engineer should not have been fired for his ideas.

The engineer’s decision to write a 10-page memo, which he clearly spent a good deal of time writing, and then share that memo, is an action, however, not merely a thought.

In a Medium post, Yonatan Zunger, a former Google employee, explained why the memo was enough to create a hostile workplace environment and thus warranted termination.

Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.

Research shows that frequent and less intense but unchallenged sexist discrimination and organizational climates were similarly harmful to women’s well-being as more overt but less frequent acts of sexism, like sexual coercion. Heer suggested demotion as an alternative to firing but no matter his position, Damore would have some power over his co-workers since Google’s performance review process allows peer reviewers to give feedback on job performance. This includes employees who are junior to them.

Viewed this way, the decision to fire Damore was not censorship. It was a decision to protect women from a hostile workplace environment. Google prioritized the well-being of its workers and the company’s overall success over one man’s career.

Like most of the tech industry, Google employees are predominantly white men. In April, the Department of Labor accused the organization of “extreme” gender pay discrimination and pointed to evidence of “systemic compensation disparities.” Diversity statistics the company released last month revealed that 69 percent of its employees are male and 31 percent are female, but when it comes to technical roles, only 19 percent of the positions are held by women.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress.org on August 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

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