Last week I wrote about the case of Adria Richards. Richards, who was developer evangelist at SendGrid, was fired after she publicly complained on Twitter about a dirty joke some male developers made at a conference; Richards’ complaint seemed to lead to one of those developers being firing. In the wake of the incident, Richards received an onslaught of racist, sexist, and threatening messages, while her now-former employer became the target of a serious denial of service attack and threats to its customers.
The situation is many kinds of messed up. But consider this alternate scenario: What if all the employees involved in this story had union representation in their workplaces? Most people think unions are all about salaries, and that’s part of what they do, but the idea that unions only focus on money comes mainly from anti-union politicians working to end collective bargaining rights.
Stripping the initial incident down to its barest facts, two men sat behind a woman and made a series of innuendo-laden jokes and remarks that she got tired of hearing. She complained about one of the jokes on Twitter. One of the men was fired. There was a public firestorm, and she was fired.
If they’d all had union representation, it’s possible that no one involved in this incident would have been fired, and we barely would have heard anything about it.
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For one thing, most union contracts establish a grievance process that has to be followed before any covered employees are fired. This means you can only be fired for cause; your union will work to get your job back if your employer fires you without sufficient evidence of cause.
Criminal behavior and gross misconduct are obvious triggers for firing, but your union representative will still insist on proof of these violations, and not just unverified allegations. For lesser issues, there’s usually a requirement for a minimum number of warnings, with employees given the chance to correct their performance according to a set of guidelines negotiated with their boss and the support of their elected union representative, often referred to as a shop steward.
Let’s stipulate that it’s the exceptionally rare employee that a determined employer can’t find cause to fire if they really want to. After all, few of us are the paragons of diligent genius and productivity that we wish we were.
In the case of the two joke-cracking conference attendees, only one was fired, so it’s fair to assume that their employer didn’t consider the jokes an automatic firing offense. The likeliest scenarios are that the fired programmer had a history of trouble at work and this was just the last straw, or that his boss was itching for an excuse to send him packing because of a grudge, pressure from above to cut costs, or some other reason.
If both men had union representation and only one of them was fired, the public at large could probably rest comfortably in the belief that this incident was indeed the latest in a string of performance and/or behavior related problems—problems that the employee’s elected union representative would have had an active hand in trying to resolve. Without such representation, there’s no way to know.
In Richards’ case, it’s hard to imagine a union contract that would allow an employee to be fired for lodging a factual complaint. (No one has said that the remarks in question were inaccurately represented.) Such a complaint might not be actionable, and it might be made with the intention of preventing a recurrence of the problem rather than getting someone fired, but it wouldn’t be just cause for dismissal.
When it comes to sexual harassment or hostile work environments, in a traditional shop-based union, elected union representatives work to establish facts, prevent retaliation, and make sure all parties are treated fairly. This protects women, who are more likely to be harassed or retaliated against for making accusations, but also anyone who might have a colleague with a grudge. Union representation, along with the grievance process, is the best way to ensure that all individuals, male and female, who are accused of harassment or hostile behavior have a chance for their side to be heard fairly—and, barring severe cases, have a chance to correct the behavior and keep their job.
Which is why I’d suggest that anyone who’s worried about being fired for no good reason after reading the Adria Richards story should think about whether or not they could organize a union where they work. Reducing injustice, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace is a big part of what unions were invented for.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.
One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.
We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”
Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.
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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.
They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough. As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing. He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.
Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.
By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.
As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”
The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.
Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.
If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”
Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.
While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.
The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself doindeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.
As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.
For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.
There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.
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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.
Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.
Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.
In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.
Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.
Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.
Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”
This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.
We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.
The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.
Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.
Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.
One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.
It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.
If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.
Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.