“Will There Ever Be a #MeToo-Style Movement for Bad Bosses?” New York magazine asked readers in a tone-deaf fog of obliviousness last month. The piece itself was fairly benign, addressing the long-standing and profoundly dubious cult of the genius boss. The trouble was with the headline—which, it must be noted, was almost certainly chosen by a New York editor, not the writer, feminist author Rebecca Traister. Just moments after the piece was blasted out on Twitter, Labor Twitter blasted right back. As veteran labor journalist Sarah Jaffe replied in an apt tone of disbelief, “It’s called the labor movement?”
A hasty headline change ensued (though the original lives on in aeturnum via the article’s URL). But the original slight to decades of concerted organizing and strike actions to curb the reckless conduct of bosses across a wide range of fronts still rankles, and for good reason. To be sure, #MeToo activism has spurred greater awareness of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, but well before journalists were documenting the high-profile predations of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer et al., much of the day-to-day struggle against the sexual trespasses of workplace managers came at the behest of many workers—particularly those who are women and nonbinary—fighting off the discriminatory and harassing behaviors of their bosses. Traister’s article paid lip service to time-honored labor tactics like collective bargaining to win better working conditions. But it’s worth noting that, for many people, a safer workplace doesn’t just mean a stricter focus on OSHA or longer bathroom breaks; it means one that is free of sexual harassment and violence.
Hotel workers have been on the front lines of this particular fight for years—and it has taken a toll. Between 2005 and 2015, hotel and restaurant workers filed at least 5,000 sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing laws against workplace discrimination. As Sandra Kensbock, the lead author of a 2014 study on sexual harassment in the hotel industry, wrote, “We found guest-initiated sexual harassment to be pervasive and normalized within the hotel workplace. The low status of hospitality workers renders them particularly vulnerable, with the power held by the instigator being a critical component of sexual harassment.”
As recently as 2018, Annelise Orleck, professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now, told The Guardian that 66 percent of hotel workers say they have experienced sexual harassment. What’s more, many hotel workers are immigrant women of color—a status that makes it likely they’ll face retaliation for reporting abuses at work. (This threat is especially great for undocumented workers, who risk being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation raids.) Despite such challenges, hotel workers represented by unions like Unite Here have made impressive strides, using collective bargaining efforts and public pressure campaigns to call out management abuses. These initiatives have yielded one of the most significant, tangible workplace wins of the #MeToo era: the panic button.