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Philly’s labor women group calls out AFL-CIO for its endorsement of Sheriff Jewell Williams

It’s a bold move in a labor movement encouraged to protect its own.

Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams was recently endorsed by the Philadelphia AFL-CIO labor union federation, despite multiple allegations of from at least three former staffers that he sexually harassed them on the job.
Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams was recently endorsed by the Philadelphia AFL-CIO labor union federation, despite multiple allegations of from at least three former staffers that he sexually harassed them on the job.Read moreStaff

In a move that revealed the fault lines in the city’s labor movement, a group representing women in labor has publicly denounced the Philadelphia AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Sheriff Jewell Williams.

Williams, who on Monday night locked down an endorsement from the Democratic Party as he faces three challengers, has been accused of sexual harassment by at least three current and former staffers. An investigation substantiated one complaint, which the city subsequently agreed in January to settle for $127,500. Another complaint in 2012 was settled for $30,000. A third lawsuit, brought by a current staffer, is still ongoing.

“As an organization of and for working people, the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO should be on the side of the working women that Williams harassed on the job," the statement, posted Monday morning by the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), read. "Instead, this endorsement sends a message that their workplace abuse does not matter.”

It’s a bold move for CLUW, an affinity group pronounced “clue” that is part of the AFL-CIO but does not get to vote on endorsements: The labor movement enforces a culture that discourages ever calling out your own — especially now, as union membership is at a historic low and organized labor faces attacks from employers, conservative groups, and politicians.

This was witnessed recently when Philadelphia’s most powerful labor leader, John J. Dougherty of the electricians union Local 98, was indicted in January on charges of embezzlement, bribery, and theft. Barely anyone would comment on the allegations against him, in part, advocates said, because the labor movement was already under attack.

Danielle Newsome, president of CLUW and a staff attorney at the New Jersey health-care union Health Professionals and Allied Employees, said that it was a tough decision to call out the Williams endorsement but that the issue was too important to stay silent.

No objections from AFL-CIO leadership

Two-thirds of the nearly 40 executive board members present voted to endorse Williams at last Wednesday’s meeting, said Pat Eiding, who chairs the executive board of the AFL-CIO, an organization that includes a wide range of unions, including those representing building trades and service workers. He said none of the board members — one-sixth of whom are women — raised any objections about Williams and the sexual-harassment allegations. (He noted that at a meeting Tuesday morning, a female board member said some people may not feel comfortable raising these kinds of objections in a board dominated by men.)

>> READ MORE: City settles lawsuit accusing Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams of sexual harassment

Though Eiding supported CLUW’s speaking out against the endorsement, he said its position is unfair. At a meeting held in January where candidates could make their case for an endorsement, Eiding said one executive board member raised a question to Williams about the allegations, but there were no further discussions about it. Nobody from CLUW attended the January meeting.

Newsome said she now plans to attend political meetings going forward.

>> READ MORE: From 2015: Donations by Philly sheriff’s top OT earners raise eyebrows

At least two member unions of the AFL-CIO have contributed to Williams’ campaign. The Laborers District Council, which hosted Williams’ campaign kickoff, contributed $5,000 in 2018, according to campaign finance records. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades contributed $1,000.

Ryan Boyer, business manager of the Laborers, said everyone is innocent until proven guilty. He said he wasn’t aware that the city substantiated one of the claims of sexual harassment.

A progressive AFL-CIO?

The history of the American labor movement has been marked by sexism, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment, but in recent years, certain groups have taken a more inclusive and progressive stance, setting their sights on fighting for the rights of all people.

>> READ MORE: Why labor has embraced immigrant rights — and 9 more examples of Philly intersectionality

In the last year, the Philadelphia AFL-CIO has followed that trend. It issued a statement against the “Proud Boys” white-supremacist rally planned in the city. It supported “Fair Workweek” legislation for non-unionized workers in retail and fast food. And it organized a rally for immigrant rights.

Ana Avendaño, a former national AFL-CIO staffer who now writes about sexual harassment in the labor movement, said that to address harassment in the workplace, “the labor movement has to recognize that sexually harassing a person is as destructive to worker rights as crossing a picket line.”

If there’s any politician facing credible allegations of sexual harassment, “they should be sticking the Rat out on that politician," she said, “not endorsing him.”

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this report.