Woman's Success Story Proves Student Unions Have Power To Fight Sexual Assault

by Alexandra Svokos

Cera Fisher wasn't thinking about sexual harassment when she joined the campaign to form a graduate worker union at the University of Connecticut.

She was thinking about going to the doctor.

The University restricted health care coverage over summer 2013, so the only place graduate workers could go for treatment was the student health services, which doesn't have a pediatrician.

It was this never-discussed switch that spurred the push for a graduate employee union.

Fisher, now a fifth-year PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology, joined a task force to organize a union.

But sexual harassment came to the front of negotiations with the university.

Fisher was elected to the union bargaining committee, which would discuss what the union wanted with administrators.

The committee ran a survey to see what its colleagues cared about in terms of a union. One major issue that came up repeatedly was how the university handled sexual harassment.

As graduate workers, they wanted to make sure they were protected from sexual harassment on the job.

Fisher knew sexual harassment was an issue, but hadn't considered it in terms of the union. She told Elite Daily,

I just hadn't been thinking at the time about how a union could protect graduate employees from sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a major issue in graduate schools.

Forty-four percent of female graduate students reported having been sexually harassed in a nationwide survey by the Association of American Universities.

The survey defined sexual harassment as something inappropriate in a sexual manner that interrupted a student's academic performance, which includes making her or him feel uncomfortable in a work or study space.

Twenty-two percent of female graduate students said this harassment came from a faculty member, while 16 percent of female grad students said it came from a teacher or advisor. Eighteen percent said it came from a co-worker, boss or supervisor.

Coming forward often presents higher stakes for graduate students than undergraduate students. Graduate work is highly tied to specific schools and advisers, so threatening those links can threaten the rest of a student's career.

Much like on the undergraduate level, schools do not always properly handle sexual harassment cases when they involve faculty. This was made clear when records from the University of California, Berkeley were revealed last spring.

The union bargaining committee wrote a proposal for the university, which included a section on sexual harassment and discrimination.

The section was basically the same as the university's own policy on sexual harassment and discrimination.

One thing they changed was saying that members could use the union to pursue cases of sexual harassment. That could potentially mean using third-party arbitration — someone from outside the school — to handle the cases.

The university did not like that.

Fisher said,

It was almost disorienting because we gave them their policy... We just wanted the right to pursue any violations of your policy through our union.

She realized the school wanted to handle these cases using their own procedure. The union just wanted to add options. She said,

When you've been the victim of sexual harassment, you feel helpless and powerless, and we wanted to make sure people had as much power as possible to vindicate their rights.

So the union committee fought, hard.

They held demonstrations, passed around petitions and lobbied state representatives.

Finally, the union won the right to be able to bring allegations of sexual harassment through the official union grievance procedure. They got that right without losing the right to go through federal and state bureaus with harassment allegations — or their rights as university members.

Having a union means graduate students have a whole group to back them up.

Three weeks after the union contract was in place, it was put to use for a student who was sexually harassed.

A graduate student who had a harassment issue with a professor had gone through the university process, only for the university to say there was no evidence to prove she was telling the truth.

Coming to the union was "her last resort," Fisher said. The woman was ready to quit grad school at that point.

Fisher said,

... which is what thousands of women do each year when a professor harasses them. They either find a way to put their heads down and get through it somehow, or they leave. They leave school. They quit the career they were working through.

Graduate students generally need professor recommendations to get a job and apply to another school. Without the harassing professor's recommendation, the woman assumed she couldn't pursue her studies.

Instead, the union worked for the graduate student.

They filed papers with every office on campus, including a union grievance. Fisher said,

I wanted so much paper in every office that no one could say they didn't know this was happening.

The union filed a complaint for gender-based discrimination with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, a state organization separate from the University.

That complaint got UConn's attention, and the school requested mediation. Because the student was with the union, she was allowed to be joined by other supportive people in mediation, including Fisher.

The mediation worked. The graduate student now has two papers coming out and is happy and productive, according to Fisher.

It really did flip the narrative for me about how this goes. This was just different. We were able to protect her because we had the institutional strength, and we had the right to.

And all because a group of graduate workers wanted better health insurance.

Citations: AAU, Huffington Post, The Guardian