A former Fight for $15 organizer says sexual harassment was pervasive at the Service Employees International Union, which just suspended the architect of the minimum-wage-hike campaign amid complaints of misconduct and nepotism.
The organizer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, said two supervisors at the union sexually harassed her, including a man directly affiliated with Fight for $15 movement. She was not surprised when SEIU President Mary Kay Henry announced that she suspended Executive Vice President Scott Courtney.
"Unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all given the broad environment of misogyny at [the union]," she said. "I personally experienced sexual harassment from two people in supervisory positions."
The organizer emphasized that she was not personally aware of any behavior from Courtney beyond what has already been documented.
Buzzfeed reported on Thursday about allegations from seven former and current SEIU organizers that he had sexual relations with female subordinates who later went on to get promoted. The former organizer told the Washington Free Beacon that she reported her supervisors to the union’s human resources division, but found the response lacking. She said the HR woman was receptive to her complaint about one supervisor, saying "thank you for bringing this to our attention," but little changed in the aftermath.
"His behavior didn’t change. He had an attitude of entitlement and misogyny and the feeling he could get away with really egregious comments," she said. "Most HR processes for investigating sexual harassment [represent] a culture of protecting the organization."
Both supervisors—whom she declined to name—were later laid off from their positions, though she feels this was due to budgetary cuts, rather than their behavior. Following the 2016 elections, SEIU leaders projected a 30 percent staff reduction to trim its budget.
The union told the Washington Free Beacon that it has launched a thorough investigation into Courtney, though it declined to elaborate about the nature of the allegations.
"SEIU takes all questions related to conduct of elected officers very seriously. I can confirm that President Henry has suspended International Executive Vice President Scott Courtney from his assigned duties as an officer of SEIU," a union spokeswoman said in an email. "This decision was made as part of an on-going inquiry that was called for by President Henry. As this inquiry is ongoing, no conclusions have been reached as yet and we continue to gather information."
Courtney has not yet responded to the allegations, as he is on his honeymoon, according to Bloomberg, which broke the news of the suspension on Tuesday.
Some progressives said the SEIU did not go far enough in suspending Courtney.
Shaunna Thomas, cofounder of the feminist advocacy group UltraViolet, called on the union to fire Courtney immediately. Instead of investigating the particular allegations before making a decision, Thomas said, it should review its own sexual harassment policies.
"Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any workplace, but it’s particularly disturbing to learn that an organization dedicated to protecting workers has allowed a culture of harassment and abuse to flourish within its ranks," Thomas said in a statement. "The SEIU must immediately move to fire Courtney, and conduct a review of the organization’s sexual harassment policies. This is wholly unacceptable, and the SEIU leadership must act quickly to ensure that it never happens again."
The former organizer who complained to the Free Beacon of sexual harassment said the SEIU has improved on the "old school, toxic masculinity" of others in the labor movement, noting that its executive board has many female leaders, including President Henry. The union represents fields with large women populations, including the healthcare, public, and service sectors, and half of all members are women.
However, middle management and on-the-ground leadership are still dominated by men, according to the former organizer. She said the labor movement and liberal advocacy groups need to make a cultural change because self-proclaimed male feminists use their public politics as "cover for their personal behavior." She doesn’t believe Courtney’s suspension or other punitive action alone will resolve the problem.
"This isn’t specific to SEIU or the labor movement. Sexual harassment is just as much a problem in progressive advocacy as it is in any other workplace," she said. "Much more important than just that [the suspension] is to insist that everyone at work practice consent … women as well as men and people of other genders contribute to sexual harassment and rape culture."
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