By Todd Ferguson
A few years ago a friend came to me for some advice. She was being sexually harassed by her boss at work and, knowing that I was a trade unionist, thought I might be able to help her decide what to do. I remember recommending to her that she go to her union with the problem and enlist their help in stopping the harasser.
On Tuesday last week that friend, Kathryn Borel, wrote a piece in The Guardian about what happened to her after she took my advice. Kathryn was a producer for Q host Jian Ghomeshi, who now faces a number of sexual assault charges.
In her Guardian piece, Kathryn details how both her former employer and her former union, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), failed to adequately defend or support her. Since Ghomeshi’s alleged pattern of sexual harassment and assault has become public, both the CBC and the CMG have claimed that both parties were unaware of the allegations she made against the CBC host back in 2010.
I have been troubled by what happened to Kathryn since I gave her the advice to go to her union. How is it possible that the CMG failed to provide support for her while she was being sexually harassed on the job?
Three things Kathryn describes in her article raised red flags for me. First, she claims that Timothy Neeson, her elected CMG representative, didn’t bother to take any notes when she spoke to him for about the allegations of harassment. This surprised me.
An elected representative, normally a shop steward, is the first person union members go to when they have a problem. This can be a very demanding and stressful task. Stewards hear the worst stories from their workplaces, often as told by their coworkers when they are the most upset. Stewards are also expected to hold their own bosses accountable for workplace misdeeds, which is sometimes a sort ofDavid and Goliath relationship. On top of all that, a shop steward’s mishandling of a grievance can lead to formal charges being brought against the union. For these reasons most unions make steward training a top priority. But this training is often unpaid and takes place during the steward’s free time, on top of their other duties as stewards. Booking eight to sixteen hour training sessions can be difficult, at best. In some cases, shop stewards perform their jobs for months before receiving any training at all, if ever.
Kathryn goes on to rightfully criticizes the CMG’s mealy-mouthed position that no CMG staff were aware of the harassment allegations until this year. (It’s worth noting that CMG’s president, Carmel Smyth, has since issued a statement promising to prioritize sexual harassment as an issue faced by her members.) The distinction between union staff and union members occupying voluntary roles like shop steward is an important one. Part of any steward’s training should involve knowing when to contact paid union staff for support, advice, or to inform them of a situation. In Kathryn’s case it appears that Mr. Neesam opted for an informal talk with management. But unions should train their stewards to report any incidents of sexual harassment to union staff in order to identify patterns of abuse for future incidents and cases.
In the end, Mr. Neesam presented two options for Kathryn to pursue – file a grievance or participate in a mediated process. These are both acceptable courses of action that I would expect of any shop steward. But both of these courses of action come with risks and it’s understandable why anyone in Kathryn’s position would be reluctant to accept either. Kathryn describes an atmosphere where she was afraid to file a grievance against Ghomeshi or to pursue a mediated settlement, partly because she feared that both options would be a career-killer. While shop stewards are afforded protection against management reprisals when they raise workplace issues, the fear of repercussions is the leading reason why union members tell me they don’t want to bring up issues via their union or get involved in their union at all. I do not know if Mr. Neesam had any concerns about taking on CBC’s rising star, but it’s worth some consideration.
Unions are influential in curbing management powers in the workplace, but their power is nonetheless limited. For the most part, the capacity of unions to rectify problems is largely restricted to the language embedded in the collective agreement and in basic employment standards, particularly human rights and occupational health and safety legislation. But unions can only exercise these powers insofar as members are willing to support each other, share risks, and work together to affect change. Unions did not get to where they are today by filing grievances, arranging arbitrations, or speaking informally with managers; unions exist only because large numbers of employees worked together and took action on the shop floor, speaking with one voice and demonstrating very clearly that the real power in the workplace lies with them.
Within CBC, Ghomeshi’s behavior and reputation were well known. Some had even witnessed the incidents of sexual harassment. One of Kathryn’s co-workers, Roberto Veri, told Jesse Brown on the Canadaland media blog that he regrets not doing anything to support Kathryn after witnessing one particularly egregious instance. If the staff at Q had felt safe enough to come together and address the issue as one in a way that would force management to address the problem, Ghomeshi may have been stopped and Kathryn could have continued her career at the CBC. The CBC bears a great deal of culpability for allowing an environment to exist where a feted host was allowed to act, quite literally, above the law.
To play an effective role in eliminating workplace harassment, unions have to ensure that their volunteer stewards and representatives are properly trained to deal with workplace harassment, including knowing when to contact union staff about problems the members face. That’s a start. Ultimately, labour organizations need to foster an environment where workers see the union as theirs, and as a tool that can be used to fight injustices in the workplace. This is not possible if grievances are seen as the only mechanism through which workers can confront these problems.
I don’t know what might have happened if the situation at Q or at the CBC or with the CMG had been different. But I do know Kathryn Borel a little bit. Aside from being hilarious and fiercely intelligent, Kathryn is, above all else, courageous. I regret not doing more to support her when she most needed support; I sincerely hope that the results of her and the fourteen other women Ghomeshi victimized coming forward will ensure that this never happens again to any woman, anywhere. This is also an important lesson for the CMG and other unions in Canada.