Fighting the Shadow Pandemic
By Tom Conway
USW International President
Losing two co-workers to domestic violence over a three-year span left Emily Brannon and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L reeling.
But their grief, Brannon noted, also launched them on a quest to save others. They helped to negotiate paid domestic violence leave into their contract with Bridgestone-Firestone, enabling other colleagues experiencing intimate partner violence to step away, focus on getting safe and return to work when they’re able to do so.
As intimate partner violence continues to increase, the unions that protect workers on the job are also fighting to keep them safe when they go home.
Brannon’s USW local in Des Moines, Iowa, is one of dozens in the United States and Canada with contract language providing domestic violence survivors with the resources crucial to breaking free of their abusers.
And the drive to empower survivors continues to grow. The USW just ratified contracts with two major employers in the paper sector, Domtar and Packaging Corp. of America (PCA), that extend similar protections and resources to thousands more workers at dozens of mills and box plants.
“I think it shows that we’re sensitive to the issues of our members,” explained Brannon, treasurer of Local 310L and a member of the local’s Women of Steel committee, who knew both of the members fatally shot by their abusers between 2014 and 2017. “We have a very diverse workforce and a diverse membership, and there are a variety of issues outside of work that the members may be dealing with.”
“Any time we can address a safety issue, we will. That’s one of the reasons you have a union in the first place,” added Brannon, noting the union also honors the members lost to domestic violence through a partnership with Soaring Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit in Des Moines advocating for victims of violence.
Domestic violence increased significantly with the lockdowns, economic strain and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming known as the “shadow pandemic.” In all, about 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men across the United States have experienced “severe physical violence” from intimate partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Financial security is key to helping survivors leave abusive partners and stay away from them. “There’s a lot on the line,” Brannon said, noting many survivors also have to provide for children.
Union-negotiated domestic violence leave helps to bridge this need. It provides paid or unpaid time off for court appearances, relocation, counseling and more, enabling survivors to attend to pressing obligations without expending vacation or sick days.
When survivors are ready to return to work, their jobs are waiting for them. Still, other supports are just as essential to helping survivors get — and stay — safe.
Under the USW’s contracts with Domtar and PCA, for example, workers may request changes in working hours, transfer to alternate worksites or vacation pay advances. Or they may request the employer’s assistance with safety planning, such as identifying a hiding place within the worksite or making an escape route.
The agreements also call for training, provided with the union’s input, to familiarize workers with the scope of intimate partner violence and the resources available to combat it.
“If you’re going to be a proactive union, this is the next step,” observed Bob Garrou, president of USW Local 248 and safety coordinator at a PCA facility in Tomahawk, Wis. “You just never know what’s going on in people’s lives. Maybe we can save some people.”
“If the union didn’t fight for all the things we have, who would?” added Garrou, noting organized labor’s successful fights over the years for decent wages, affordable health care and retirement security. “I think it’s really important that we stand together.”
Some employers, including Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Ontario, support the union’s efforts to assist domestic violence survivors. That only makes sense because intimate partner violence can affect productivity or, if abusers show up at the workplace, put other workers at risk.
“There was no pushback whatsoever at the table,” USW Local 1568 Trustee Nancy Walsh said of laboratories management, adding that union members welcomed the language. “They know that we are standing behind everyone. It’s better for everyone.”
Union members have each other’s backs on and off the job. Solidarity is one reason that USW members like Walsh volunteer to serve as trained peer advocates to help domestic violence survivors in their workplaces.
Walsh, who chairs the Women of Steel committee for Local 1568, recalled feeling “helpless” many years ago when a co-worker confided her experiences with domestic violence.
Walsh’s training showed her how to provide emotional care, refer survivors to community resources and intervene with management on workplace issues. The second time a co-worker confided in her, she knew how to respond.
“We’re just there to add support, to get them the help they need,” Walsh said. “It might be an easier step for someone to get out of a bad situation.”