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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

#MeToo Five Years Later: How The Movement Started And What Needs To Change

Woman holding sign that reads "#MeToo #SilenceBreaker"
This month, October 2022, marks the fifth anniversary of when the #MeToo movement went viral. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)GETTY IMAGES

Like many people, Laura Zuniga, 39, of Fresno, California, wants to provide for her family. A single mother of three daughters ages 11 to 14, she struggles to pay her bills, but has a dream of buying a home of their own. “I want my daughters to have a backyard where they can run and be free, and we can play music and barbecue,” says Zuniga. “Before I leave this world, I’d like to leave a house in my daughters’ names so they are secure.”

To go after this dream, Laura has worked overnight shifts at a warehouse while her elderly mother watched her children, as well as in a local laundromat, which paid $200 to $300 a week. Yet she still found herself in debt trying to pay for basics such as rent, gas and school supplies. One day while working at the laundromat, Zuniga had an epiphany about a way out of poverty. Zuniga says, “Truck drivers dropping off laundry had wads of cash, nice cars and talked about buying houses. I asked them about their work. I never considered being a truck driver before, but I thought maybe it’s something I could do.”

Zuniga didn’t see a way to buy a home of her own earning about $200 a week at the laundromat, so she trained for six months to become a truck driver. With the chance to earn $1800 to $2000 a week, she saw it as a path to financial freedom.

It was in the early months of the pandemic in June 2020 when she landed a job at Eagle Trucklines. Zuniga became an essential worker as millions of people across the country socially distanced and relied on truckers to deliver supplies.

Then in October 2020, Zuniga got a long-haul route from Fresno, California to Florida, and was assigned to co-drive with a male colleague she had never driven with before. She says she did not feel comfortable with the co-driver, who had been asking to drive with her, and told her manager. However, with Christmas coming, she wanted to keep her job and buy her kids presents, so she agreed.

When Zuniga pulled over part-way through the trip and attempted to nap in the bed of the truck, Zuniga says her co-driver sexually assaulted her. When she immediately reported the assault to her dispatcher, she says, “They told me he wouldn’t touch me anymore, to not call the police and that I had to keep driving. I was angry and confused, but I kept going because it was my job.” Zuniga says when her co-driver kept coming up to the front and touching her as she was driving, she pulled over again in tears and called 911. She then drove the truck alone to Arizona to meet up with other drivers to switch trailers so she could drive back home.

After that incident, Zuniga says Eagle Trucklines never paid her for that drive and never called her again for another job, while her co-driver continued driving for the company for months afterwards. “It made me feel worthless,” says Zuniga, who believes she was fired for speaking up. “They didn’t protect me. They probably thought, ‘She’s Mexican, she’s a woman, she’s not going to say anything.’ What they did affected me. I’ve lost my hair, gained weight, I don’t laugh or sing anymore. I’m depressed. But I know I’m not the only one this has happened to. I feel like I need to speak up for myself, and for my daughters, and show them we have to fight so this doesn’t keep happening to other women.”

Zuniga’s story is reported in a lawsuit she filed that names the company and her co-driver, alleging sexual harassment, sexual battery, retaliation, wrongful termination, and failure to pay agreed upon wages, among other complaints. Eagle Trucklines has denied the allegations in the lawsuit, but Eagle Trucklines’ lawyer declined to comment and Eagle Trucklines’ owner did not respond to requests for comment.

Nora Cassidy, an attorney from Legal Aid at Work who is representing Zuniga, says the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which supports individuals who’ve experienced sexual harassment or retaliation at work, awarded them a grant to help with this case. “I believe Laura’s hope is that by sharing her story, it will inspire others to come forward…to ensure her daughters and so many young people will not have to go through what she did. That there will be some purpose to her pain… to turn it into something that will have a positive effect on workers like her, on single moms like her, on Mexican Americans like her and on every community she is a part of.”

Unfortunately Zuniga is not alone in her experience: more than 70% of workers who report abuse are retaliated against in some way—whether they are fired, demoted, given fewer hours on their schedule, denied a promotion, or threatened with legal action, according to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.

This month, October 2022, marks the fifth anniversary of when the #MeToo movement went viral. Activist Tarana Burke originally coined the phrase “me too” in 2006, but it became part of the lexicon in 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted ‘me too’ and encouraged others who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to do the same—and got 12 million responses on social media within 24 hours. Shortly after came the launch of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which was created to help shift more power back into workers’ hands by giving them the resources to fight legally and to amplify the voices of survivors.

The #MeToo movement sparked a societal reckoning as millions of women’s voices about the sexual violence they’d experienced put a spotlight on gender inequities and power dynamics. No longer silent, this collective of voices resulted in real-world consequences that spread around the world, with heads of companies being fired and public figures being held accountable.

“If you think back to 2017, millions of people had already started the year in January marching in support of women with the Women's March,” says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of National Women’s Law Center and co-founder of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “More people had been coming forward and making complaints in some spaces, and there were a few cases that were getting attention. I think the spark in fact was the injustice of learning that people with the power and privilege that some of the Weinstein survivors had, that they too did not have justice and healing. What you also saw was the world rallying around them, and rallying around the idea that no matter where you sit, we deserve more.”

As #MeToo became a cultural force in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Latina farmworkers wrote a letter in solidarity with the women and men in Hollywood who had come forward with their stories of sexual harassment. Led by Monica Ramirez at Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization of farmworker women and those from farmworker families, the letter started with, “Dear Sisters,” and said, “Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.”

The voices of #MeToo expanded beyond Hollywood, and encompassed people across industries, race and class. “I’m struck by the similar stories among workers from incredibly different walks of life who are facing sexual harassment and sex discrimination—and I’m moved by their courage to speak up about their abuse,” says Jennifer Mondino, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “Now, almost five years later, we are hearing from migrant workers, domestic workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, and also people at the very top of major corporations.”

At the root of sexual harassment is power; who has it and who doesn’t. It isn’t a single issue, but is deeply intertwined not only with gender inequities, but also with racial, class, socioeconomic and other inequities. “What happened in 2020 in terms of reckoning around racial injustice, I see these issues as an ongoing arc around people demanding that they’re able to live with dignity, that they be treated like humans and worthy of justice always,” says Goss Graves. “For all of us who do this work, we don't see them as separate ideas.”

Some more recent cases illustrate how incidents of harassment are embedded in cultures that allow inequities to thrive, from the thousands of Google employees around the world who did a walkout in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment, gender inequality and systemic racism to the class-action lawsuit filed against McDonald’s for sexual harassment and retaliation of those who reported it.

“If you make workplaces or schools safe and more equitable and places where people feel like they belong, that is a thing that will help everyone,” says Goss Graves. “We find that abusers who use sexual violence often abuse in other ways as well. So you might have someone who's engaged in sexual violence, but they've been a bully to everyone else in other ways, and they are underpaying people and they are demanding conditions that are terrible. We need to be able to connect those dots very clearly.”

At a time when we’re seeing a culture clash in the fight for equality, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the “Great Breakup” where women leaders are leaving companies in record numbers due to systemic inequities, and SCOTUS set to revisit a case about LGBTQ+ rights, it’s important to remember that sexual violence is not separate from, but a part of, these converging equity issues.

“The thing I'm concerned about is we're seeing a major gender and racial backlash across the country in terms of abortion attacks, attacks against trans students, and attacks against discrimination trainings and implicit bias trainings,” says Andrea Johnson, Director of State Policy, Workplace Justice & Cross-Cutting Initiatives at the National Women’s Law Center. “I'm really worried all this progress we've made culturally with #MeToo could be rolled back. That underlies how important policy changes are to make sure that this progress is made permanent, and is something that future generations can continue to rely on.”

It’s clear that sexual harassment also isn’t an individual issue; it’s a systemic issue. It requires protections in the form of laws to help prevent it from happening in the first place, or to put better structures in place to create accountability. Despite the increased awareness that the #MeToo movement generated about sexual harassment, the issue remains prevalent. Since its launch in January 2018, roughly 6,000 people have sought help from Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and their network of 400 attorneys.

The experiences of the thousands of survivors who’ve reached out to the Fund for legal help is shining a light on what laws are needed to better address sexual harassment and protect workers who report it. Since #MeToo went viral in October 2017, there’s been progress at the state level to address workplace harassment: 22 states and the District of Columbia have passed more than 70 workplace anti-harassment bills, according to a new report by the National Women’s Law Center. Some reforms passed at the state level have focused on eliminating non-disclosure agreements, extending the statute of limitations for reporting harassment, and requiring workplace harassment training.

Yet reforms for most workers may still be coming up short. “From conversations with my colleagues at the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, the progress we're seeing at the state level isn't always responding to what survivors are dealing with and need most,” says Johnson. “Retaliation is the perfect example of that. We're regularly seeing how people across workplaces are dealing with retaliation. That keeps [survivors] from speaking up about harassment and ultimately allows harassment to be swept under the rug and employers to not be held accountable…What we need are policy reforms that really shift these power imbalances, and make it so it's not the employer who holds all the power and holds people's lives and livelihoods and careers hostage.”

Another issue is that there are whole segments of the workforce and types of workers who have no legal recourse if they experience harassment, and a lot of those workers are the most vulnerable to harassment or retaliation.

“A priority focus of state lawmakers should be making sure that everybody has that baseline protection against discrimination, including harassment and retaliation, so that they can get support if they experience that,” says Johnson. “It's people like domestic workers who might be working in somebody's home and who are often women of color or immigrant workers. Farm workers are also often carved out of anti-harassment laws. People like independent contractors are pretty regularly not covered by employment discrimination laws, because those laws pertain only to employees and independent contractors are not defined under most laws as employees. It’s people at small companies with less than 15 people.”

Systemic issues do not have a quick fix. Some short-term solutions encompass protection against retaliation for those who report harassment and including gig workers in the laws.

“It also includes the more systemic work of making sure that people have paid leave, higher wages, equal pay, fair work schedules—all of these factors go into creating more equitable workplaces,” says Johnson. “That really impacts the power and financial security workers have, and can also make it easier to speak up and reduce the impact of retaliation. We're really encouraging lawmakers as they take stock of where we are five years after #MeToo went viral to think about those types of protections as part of this fight to stop workplace harassment, because they are as fundamental as many of the other reforms being passed for addressing these power imbalances.”

*Article originally published in Forbes


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