By Sue Frietsche, WLP Senior Staff Attorney
I spent Saturday, March 28 with about 40 women and a few men at a workshop called, “Women’s Rights on the Job: Building Knowledge, Power and Community.” The Women’s Law Project cosponsored this event, along with Working Women Rising—a broad and growing network of working and union women from across the Pittsburgh region—and the Women’s Caucus of Fight Back Pittsburgh, the Associate Member Program of USW Local 3657.
On this cold spring afternoon, the great room at the Smithfield Church in downtown Pittsburgh was hung with bright banners saying, “$15 and a Union” and “Fight Back Pittsburgh.” The room was buzzing with workers from the restaurant, fast food, and hospital industries. It seemed that every person had a jaw-dropping story of workplace injustice to tell.
Before long, a whole wall was dotted with neon orange and fuschia sticky notes cataloguing “Issues for Working Women on the Job” (aka problems), and “How We Stand Up, Fight Back” (aka solutions).
I was struck by how many of the issues plastered on the church wall involved incredibly illegal conduct by employers (sexual harassment, wage theft, pregnancy discrimination, no accommodations for nursing mothers, unequal pay), and yet how few of the solutions involved calling a lawyer or filing a discrimination charge. This roomful of vibrant, engaged, angry women did not, for the most part, see the legal system as a useful source of protection or safety, or an available route to justice. Instead, they saw the legal system as an empty promise, or simply irrelevant to their struggles.
Surely, one answer is to strengthen laws. For most working parents, the need for such humane and commonsense policies such as paid sick and parental leave, a predictable schedule, affordable child care, and a living wage is nearly universal, yet these policies are simply not guaranteed by law.
Incredibly, discrimination based on a worker’s sexual orientation is perfectly legal in most Pennsylvania counties. Even when a law exists to address a problem (such as sexual harassment, unequal pay, pregnancy discrimination), it is often riddled with exceptions, exclusions, and defenses that skew it against the victim. So, expanding legal protections, closing loopholes in existing laws, and eliminating provisions that give certain employers a “free pass” to discriminate or harass are bound to help.
A second answer is to enforce these laws more aggressively. The chasm dividing Title VII from the restaurant worker whose boss won’t stop the customers from grabbing her is wide and deep. That chasm can only be bridged by people with time to listen, who do not charge by the minute, who will kindly and respectfully answer questions.
Pittsburgh has a talented plaintiffs’ employment bar that can fill this role. If you aren’t sure whether you need a lawyer, a good place to start is with the Women’s Law Project’s free, confidential telephone counseling service (M-F 9:00-5:00, 412-281-2892 or 215-928-9801).
But on Saturday, as I looked around the room and listened to story after story of outrageous injustice and abuse, it could not have been clearer that these answers aren’t enough. The burden of transforming our society into one in which women workers are treated fairly and with dignity is a heavy burden to place on the backs of individual plaintiffs, who are busy enough dodging retaliation while holding down a job they are suing over, and if successful, more often than not they are silenced by confidentiality agreements. If feminist lawyers want to make the promise of workplace equality a reality, we must sometimes log off Westlaw and join women workers in the streets.
That is why I am inviting all of my colleagues and friends to the April 15th Day of Action.
On April 15, people all across the country will be taking to the streets in historic numbers, in order to fight for dignity and respect. Fast food workers, students, and other activists will be standing up for $15 and a union. In preparing for the Saturday workshop, one of the organizer’s daughters drew a protest t-shirt design that captured the spirit of the day:
I read that little girl’s t-shirt message as a promise and a challenge.
Join us in Pittsburgh on April 15th at:
4:00 pm, Forbes & Bigelow
By the Cathedral of Learning