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How should trade unions handle #metoo?

How should trade unions handle #metoo?

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

The #metoo movement’s many appalling stories show that parallel to rules and regulations there has been culture of silence which has made sexual assaults and harassment possible. This is a challenge for trade unions on all levels, concluded Nordic trade union representatives at a meeting in Stockholm in February.

“In the 70s we fought for legislation and rules which should bring more gender equality and protection against sexual harassment, but we didn’t change the culture. #metoo shows that there still is a culture of silence and that we have failed to reach the root causes of the problem,” said Sharan Burrow, Secretary General of the International Trade Union Confederation ITUC on a link from Brussels.

The lunch seminar ‘#metoo – Nordic trade union tools in a global perspective’ was hosted by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) in February, and attracted a lot of interest. The seminar was quickly fully subscribed, and many had to make do with following the livestream. The organisers were the Council of Nordic Trade Unions NFS, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees and ‘Union to Union’ – a non-profit organisation made up by the three central trade unions LO, TCO and Saco. It runs trade union development projects around the world. Now the question was – what can trade unions do to prevent the sexual harassment and assaults which #metoo has highlighted in all its brutality? 

Different levels in different countries

The #metoo campaign has manifested itself differently in the different Nordic countries. In Sweden, women from 65 different trades have signed up to the #metoo campaign using different hashtags, including the trade unions’  #inteförhandlingsbart (non-negotiable). In Finland, however, #metoo has not had the same impact, says Ann Selin from the Service Union United PAM, who is also President of Uni Global. She explains that this is partly down to cultural reasons.

“There is a Finnish saying; silence is golden. This creates a climate in which women do not dare to tell anyone about harassment. Finland is also a small nation and people are afraid of talking about such issues because it could have a direct impact on their chances of getting a job,” said Ann Selin.

She also pointed out the importance of safe employment. People on permanent contracts are less exposed than all the women who have temporary or precarious work. In other words: the less secure the contract, the greater the risk of sexual harassed in the workplace.

There have been many #metoo campaigns in Norway too. In the wake of the movement, many women have dared to come forward with their stories and to report harassment and abuse. Some have landed like a bombshell, not least claims within political parties leading to the resignation of the Labour Party’s deputy leader.

“#metoo has sent shockwaves into the Norwegian labour market. Trade unions have dealt with these issues for a long time, but thanks to #metoo things have shifted up a gear. We have to use that to our advantage,” says Peggy Hessen Følsvik, Vice President at Norwegian LO.

”That’s enough”

TCO President Eva Nordmark described her feelings about the #metoo movement as a mix of distress and hope. 

“I have felt anger and sorrow over the stories that have been told, but also hope. #metoo also tells the world ‘that’s enough’. There is a strength there, and it must be cultivated,” she said.

Eva Nordmark believes it is important to take responsibility and to be self-critical. Could anything have been done differently? She also wants the trade union movement to look at itself. What is OK and what is not? What is the negotiating climate like? Is there enough acceptance? Or is there a sexist jargon?

“This conversation must be had on a daily basis, and we must all take responsibility for speaking out when we feel something is not OK. The only way to do this is to bring these issues down to a workplace level. LO, TO and Saco represent 3.5 million members. If everyone addresses the issue and speak up every time they hear a sexist joke or witness sexual harassment, imagine the power we have to change Swedish working life,” said Eva Nordmark.

All of the trade union representatives believe #metoo and the many stories in its wake have given a lot of ammunition for addressing the issue of sexual harassment. No employer can now dismiss the issue with ‘That’s not happening here’. But in order to create real change, there is a need for grassroots work among trade unions.  

Anyone who believe they have been a victim of assault must be made to feel safe reporting it, and must also know who to tell. The local trade union representative must also know what needs to be done. Trade unions themselves could also end up in a situation where both alleged victim and alleged perpetrator are members. Knowledge and routines are needed in order to address this, pointed out Magnus Hedberg, head of the Saco affiliated Jusek trade union.

“We need to equip our members and trade union representatives with the right tools to increase awareness.”

Never more silent

was the main slogan during the 8 March demonstration in Stockholm this year. It alluded to the many #metoo campaigns in Sweden.


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