The Housemaid, Her Union and Strauss-Kahn
One very important fact has been largely absent from the coverage of the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and leading candidate to be the next president of France. The hotel housekeeper who he allegedly assaulted was represented by a union.
The reason that this is an important part of the story is that it is likely that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s victim likely would not have felt confident enough to pursue the issue with either her supervisors or law enforcement, if she had not been protected by a union contract. The vast majority of hotel workers in the United States, like most workers in the private sector, do not enjoy this protection.
This matters because under the law in the United States, an employer can fire a worker at any time for almost any reason. It is illegal for an employer to fire a worker for reporting a sexual assault. If any worker can prove that this is the reason they were fired, they would get their job back and probably back pay. (The penalties tend to be trivial, so the back pay is unfortunately not a joke.)
However, it is completely legal for an employer to fire a worker who reports a sexual assault for having been late to work last Tuesday or any other transgression. Since employers know the law, they don’t ever say that they are firing a worker for reporting a sexual assault. They might fire workers who report sexual assaults for other on-the-job failings, real or invented.
In this way the United States stands out from most other wealthy countries. For example, all the countries of Western Europe afford workers some measure of employment protection, where employers must give a reason for firing workers. Workers can contest their dismissal if they think the reason is not valid, unlike the United States where there is no recourse.
Imagine the situation of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s victim had she not been protected by a union contract. She is a young immigrant mother who needs this job to support her family. It seems that she did not know Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s identity at the time she reported the assault, but she undoubtedly understood that the person staying in the $3,000 a night suite was a wealthy and important person.
In these circumstances, how likely would it be that she would make an issue of a sexual assault to her supervisors? Housekeepers are generally among the lowest paid workers at hotels, often earning little more than the minimum wage. It is a high turnover job, meaning that any individual housekeeper is likely to be viewed as easily replaceable by the management.
If this housekeeper did not enjoy the protection of a union contract, is it likely that she would have counted on her supervisors taking her side against an important guest at the hotel? Would she be prepared to risk her job to pursue the case?
We can never know how this particular woman would have responded; fortunately she did have the protection of the union. However, it is likely that many similar assaults go unreported because the victims do not feel they can risk their jobs to pursue the case. They have to simply accept an attack like this as part of the job.
There is a special irony to this situation given Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s position. The IMF, along with other pillars of the economic establishment, has long pushed for reducing the rights of workers at their workplace. Specifically, they have pushed countries around the world to adopt measures that would weaken the power of unions.
They have also urged the Western European countries to eliminate or weaken the laws that prevent employers from firing workers at will. These laws, along with unions, are seen as labor market rigidities that prevent labor markets from operating efficiently.
In the dream world of the economists’ textbook policies, all employers would have the ability to fire employees at will. There would be no protective legislation and no unions to get in the way.
In that economist’s dream world, Mr. Strauss-Kahn and any other powerful individual would be fairly certain that they could sexually assault hotel workers with impunity. Maybe the IMF will adopt a new policy of putting up its top male managers in non-union hotels.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.
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From the Archives
By Sheldon Richman | Free Association | March 29, 2013
The right-wing seemingly never misses a chance to go after Barack Obama for his collectivism and alleged dislike of America. Yet when Obama embraced blood-and-soil tribalism openly and implied that America was not the “land of the free” for everyone, the right-wing apparently had nothing to say.
Why? The subject was Israel, and the right-wing shares Obama’s tribalist premises on that subject.
In his speech in Jerusalem on March 21, Obama said:
For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland. That’s why I believe that Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea — the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.
The first half of the paragraph is full of fable and fabrication, though he’s right about suffering, prejudice, pogroms, and genocide. To understand what’s wrong with those sentences, consult Shlomo Sand’s two excellent books The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel (both available for Kindle). Invention is not unique to the “Jewish people.” Many peoples and nations are the product of what Sand calls “mythistory.”
What I want to focus on in Obama’s statement is this:
And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea–to be a free people in your homeland.
Obama is saying that Jews need to live apart in Israel or they can’t be truly free. Think about the implications. Something about Jews makes it impossible for them to be really at home anywhere—including in what the right-wing (and presumably Obama) tout as the freest nation in the history of the world. So Jews need an ethno-religiously exclusivist state. That view amounts to a wholesale rejection of the western liberal tradition, which was inclusive and universalist and in which all people have the same rights without being seen as members of a tribe. Isn’t it the official line that this is what made America great? So why is Obama rejecting it? And why is the right-wing conspicuously silent? … continue
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