The Guardian Unlimited, May 24, 2011
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 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.