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Domestic Violence: The Union Response

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Unions Respond to Domestic Violence

Domestic violence fits into the agenda of unions as a family issue, a public health issue, a workplace issue, and a community issue. Like other struggles for health, safety, and human dignity, domestic violence impacts the lives of untold numbers of working people in the U.S. With increasing frequency, we hear reports about domestic violence that spills into the workplace. Domestic violence can have a disruptive, even dangerous effect on the lives of workers as well as the larger community.

Union interest grows out of a strong tradition of fighting for social and economic justice for the workers they represent as well as for the broader community. In addition to a higher standard of living, unions have fought for respect, civil and human rights, personal self-determination, and freedom from violence.

What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of assaults and controlling behaviors, including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks and economic control that adults and adolescents use against their intimate partners. Domestic violence is lethal, common, and affects people of all cultures, religions, ages, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds and income levels. The overwhelming majority of adult domestic violence victims are women, and perpetrators are men. Their husbands, boyfriends or intimate partners physically abuse almost four million women every year. It is a certainty that union members are affected personally by domestic violence.

Domestic violence is not an isolated, individual event. One battering episode builds on past episodes and sets the stage for future episodes. All incidents of the pattern interact with each other and have a profound effect on the victim. There is a wide range of consequences, some physically injurious and some not; all psychologically damaging. Without intervention, the pattern of assaultive behaviors often escalates in both frequency and severity.

Domestic Violence: A Workplace Issue

Unions increasingly have made the issue of workplace violence part of their agenda to protect workers. Domestic violence often becomes workplace violence. It is crucial that domestic violence and other forms of workplace violence be seen as serious, recognizable, and preventable problems like thousands of other workplace health and safety issues. Victims of Domestic Violence May Be Especially Vulnerable While They Are at Work

The lethality of domestic violence often increases at times when the batterer believes that the victim has left the relationship. Once a woman attempts to leave an abusive partner, the workplace can become the only place the assailant can locate and harm her. Each year, husbands and boyfriends commit about 13,000 acts of violence against their wives or girlfriends while they are at work.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, domestic violence has contributed toward making homicide the leading cause of death for women at work. Without knowledge of the signs of domestic violence, the risk of danger is magnified to the woman as well as to her co-workers.

Domestic Violence Affects Productivity

A study of New York survivors of domestic violence found that abusive husbands and partners harassed 74% of employed battered women at work, causing 56% of them to be late for work at least five times a month, 28% to leave early at least five days a month, and 54% to miss at least three full days of work a month. Batterers also may miss work because of violence, incarceration, or legal proceedings resulting from the violence. All workers are at risk.

Why Is Domestic Violence a Union Issue?

Violence against women is a form of discrimination. It is a violation of one's rights, and exists in a society in which women frequently experience discrimination. The labor movement and other social movements in the U.S. share responsibility in the struggle for human dignity, including freedom from violence.

Unions work to protect all workers. With more than four million women victimized by domestic violence every year, abuse directly affects union members - those who are victims and those who batter.

In addition to bread and butter issues, unions work to protect the health, safety, and well being of the workers they represent. Women facing domestic violence are at higher risk of on-the-job violence. They are more likely to miss work or come in late.

Victims of domestic violence may be disciplined by management for job performance problems and can lose opportunities for promotion and advancement. When issues such as high absenteeism and declining job performance result in disciplinary actions, union stewards become involved.

Many union members work in professions that deal directly with domestic violence and its consequences, including emergency dispatchers, social workers, police officers, health care workers, taxicab drivers, and security personnel. Unions can assist workers in these professions through efforts such as in-service trainings and by encouraging public awareness about domestic violence.

The workplace is where many women facing domestic violence spend at least eight hours a day. It's an ideal place for her to get help and support. Unions can help assure that victims of domestic violence understand and access services, information and protections available to them.

Unions are uniquely positioned to be a key force in helping women stay safe, both on the job and at home. They can help reduce the risk of violence for workers while maintaining jobs - a key to economic self-sufficiency. By addressing domestic violence, unions can make a significant difference in the lives of their members.

What Unions Can Do

Union Training:

  1. Be sure all members have information about where to refer other members for help.
  2. Include information about domestic violence as part of your steward/delegate training.
  3. Do stewards know how to recognize the signs of domestic violence?
  4. Do they know the appropriate policies around the issue?

For Stewards and Officers:

Make sure all information about the woman's situation is confidential.

Let women know that the union is there to support them when domestic violence causes on-the-job problems. Offer to be an advocate to get the employer to make some accommodations to help her through a crisis.

Negotiate employer-paid legal assistance and other types of assistance programs for use by abused members.

Be sure that your Member Assistance Program and/or Employee Assistance Program includes services for members dealing with domestic violence.

Either independently or in cooperation with the employer, sponsor workshops about domestic violence.

Work with personnel or human resources departments to ensure that procedures are in place to protect women from domestic violence in the workplace.

If you work in a profession that deals directly with the problem (i.e., police, social worker, attorney, medical service personnel, corrections officer, etc.) and you see ways that services you provide could be more effective, strategize with the union about how to get your ideas implemented.

Negotiate contract language that is supportive to members dealing with domestic violence, including leaves of absence, transfers, worksite security, and paid time to attend court hearings.

Provide all members with information about their rights.

Do you or your employer offer an Employee Assistance Program or other counseling service? Are they trained to provide counseling on domestic violence? At the very least, they should offer referrals to service providers who specialize in domestic violence.

Negotiate for improved security at the workplace. Security can play a critical role in the safety of women at work. It may help to move her workspace to a safer location if she is in a reception area. Cellular phones can be issued to workers in isolated locations. If a woman has a restraining order against someone, or is being stalked, she can give a recent photograph of her batterer to security. If he comes to her work, he can be arrested. Stalking and violating restraining orders are against the law.

There are other steps security can take: special training in domestic violence, escorts to parked cars, installing extra lighting in the parking lot, and priority parking near the building for women who fear an attack at work.

Conduct a drive to collect clothes, toys, furniture or money for a local domestic violence program or shelter. Adopt a local agency to raise funds for specific needs, such as repairs.

Assist Members in Creating a Workplace Safety Plan and A Personal Safety Plan.

The Workplace Safety Plan

It is a good idea for women facing violence at home to create a safety plan, both for home and for work. Here are some suggestions for women dealing with abuse:

Tell your union steward/representative, a co-worker or supervisor, who should respect your confidentiality.

Notify security of your safety concerns. Provide a picture of the batterer and a copy of protective orders to security, supervisors, and reception area staff.

Have your calls screened, transfer harassing calls to security, or remove your name and number from automated phone directories.

Review the safety of your parking arrangements. Have security escort you to your car and obtain a parking space near the building entrance.

Ask co-workers to call the police if your partner threatens or harasses you at work.

Talk to your union representative or supervisor about flexible or alternate work hours.

Talk to your union representative or supervisor about relocating your workspace to a more secure area.

Review the safety of your child care arrangements. Give a picture of your batterer and a copy of your protective order to the day care provider. If necessary, consider selecting a new day care site.

Union Sample Contract Language on Domestic Violence

General Statement

The Employer and the Union agree that all employees have the right to a work environment free of and safe from domestic violence. Domestic violence, which may involve physical, psychological, economic violence or stalking, against a current or former intimate partner, is a widespread societal problem, which must be prevented. The Employer shall use early prevention strategies to avoid or minimize the occurrence and effects of domestic violence in the workplace and to offer assistance and a supportive environment to its employees experiencing domestic violence. In all responses to domestic violence, the Employer shall respect employees' confidentiality.

In order to help eliminate domestic violence and to assist employees who are affected by domestic violence both inside and outside the workplace, the Employer shall complete the following tasks within six (6) months following the date of ratification of this contract:

  1. Distribute to all employees and post appropriate information concerning the nature of domestic violence, methods by which it may be prevented or eliminated, and avenues through which victims and/or perpetrators may seek assistance.
  2. Post on all Management bulletin boards information on the National Domestic Violence Hotline and local resources.
  3. Provide the union with copies of the information noted in subsection 1) and 2) above for posting on Union bulletin boards.
  4. Conduct training programs, in conjunction with experts in the field of domestic violence and the Union, for employees. The purpose of the training shall be to instruct the employees about the nature and effects of domestic violence, the impact of domestic violence on employees in the workplace, and sources for referrals for assistance. Employees shall also be trained on the provisions relating to domestic violence contained in this contract.
  5. Brief supervisory personnel on the problem of domestic violence and their role in identifying employees in need of referrals for assistance.

Leave Time

Employees shall have the right to use sick leave, personal leave, annual leave, compensatory time, and any other paid leave for medical appointments, legal proceedings, or other activities related to domestic violence. Such absences shall not be counted against the employee under any attendance policy for disciplinary purposes, and may be taken without prior approval.

If all paid leave has been exhausted and additional periods of leave are needed to attend to medical, legal, or other matters related to domestic violence, the employees shall have the option of taking family and medical leave of up to twelve (12) weeks. The leave shall be unpaid, but the Employer shall administer the leave in accordance with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), including but not limited to the FMLA's provisions pertaining to health benefits and job reinstatement.

Transfers and Work Schedules

In order to provide assistance to an employee experiencing domestic violence and to provide a safe work environment to all employees, the Employer shall make every effort to approve requests from employees experiencing domestic violence for transfers to other worksites and/or changes in work schedules.

Workplace Safety

The Employer shall, in conjunction with experts in the field of domestic violence and the Union, undertake a review of all current security procedures to ensure inclusion of specific safety considerations and responses appropriate for employees experiencing domestic violence and their workplace. Based on the review, the Employer and the Union shall meet to reach a joint agreement on any changes, which shall be made to the Employer's security procedures. Changes made to the security procedures shall be implemented within six (6) months following ratification of this contract.

Health Insurance

The Employer shall allow an employee who presents evidence that she/he is experiencing domestic violence to opt into the Employer's group health plan without regard to the plan's open enrollment period, if such employee would otherwise be without health insurance or would be at increased risk of violence by remaining on their partners' health plan. Evidence shall include, but not be limited to, a police report, medical report, statement of a counselor or other shelter staff, injunctive order, declaration of a witness, or the employee's own signed statement.


Section [1]

When an employee who is subject to discipline, including counseling, for work performance, attendance or any other reason, confides that she/he is experiencing domestic violence and provides some form of supporting documentation, such as a police report, medical report, statement of a counselor or shelter staff, injunctive order, a declaration of a witness, or the employee's own signed statement, a referral for appropriate assistance shall be offered to the employee in lieu of disciplinary action and the disciplinary action shall be held in abeyance for six (6) months. In accordance with other provisions of the contract, the employee has the right to union representation in any and all discussions with the Employer pertaining to this section.

The matter will be reviewed following the six-month period, and if the problem that initiated the disciplinary action has satisfactorily improved, any information pertaining to the discipline shall be removed from the employee's personnel file. If the problem remains, the employer, the Union, and the employee shall meet before the Employer undertakes any disciplinary action.

Section [2]

Any employee who engages in domestic violence on the Employer's premises, during work hours, or at an Employer-sponsored social event, may be subject to disciplinary action in accordance with this contract. The union shall be notified within two (2) working days of any potential disciplinary action under this section. In accordance with other provisions of this contract, the employee has the right to union representation in any and all discussions with the Employer pertaining to this section.

Such employees shall also be referred to appropriate resources through the Employee Assistance Program and/or other local resources.

Employee Assistance Plan

The Employer's Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) shall include professionals trained specifically in domestic violence and its potential impact on work performance.

Legal Assistance Plan

Within one (1) year following ratification of this contract, the Employer shall make a legal assistance program available to employees. Assistance shall be available for general legal problems, including but not limited to, domestic violence. The Employer and the Union prior to implementation shall develop this program jointly.

Sample Newsletter Article - Union Setting

Domestic Violence Is a Union Issue

Carol had an even deeper appreciation of her job than most workers. Getting it probably saved her life. "I came from a home background where I was an abused wife," she said. "At that time, battery of women wasn't recognized." Over the years, she had frequently called in law enforcement personnel. "They wouldn't help me. Or they would make me leave my house with my five kids. I would have to walk - at two or three in the morning - to my sister's house. You never knew what provoked him. One time I woke up in the hospital and I didn't know who I was."

"It took me 18 years to get out of it. He stopped abusing me and started on my children." At about that time, Carol found a state job. "I was making $114 a week - I never got a penny of support - and I decided I could pay the rent and support my children. You get strong from that sense of security."

Carol was lucky. She got out of her dangerous marriage, and now volunteers at shelters and is frequently called in to counsel co-workers who are in an abusive relationship. She now chairs her state's International Women's Advisory Committee. "I learned a lot about what a union should be," she says, "and what a union could do for people like me."

Domestic violence is a workplace issue. Did you know that their husbands or boyfriends physically abuse almost four million women in the United States? This can spill over into the workplace in higher absenteeism, greater need for medical benefits, and higher risk of on-the-job violence. No one deserves to be abused, and [name of local] is taking steps to help.

If you are living with domestic violence, the union has resources that can help. We can help you negotiate for flexible work schedules for counseling and court appearances, and for specially trained security if you feel at risk on the job. Talk to your union steward for confidential advice and details.

If you are currently being beaten or hurt in a relationship, there are resources available and people who want to help you. Call 1-800-799-SAFE for help and referrals to people nearby who can help keep you safe.

For more information about talking to women about domestic violence, or speaking out in the community and workplace, call 1-800-END-ABUSE.


Unions have a long tradition of standing up for human rights. Reaching out to members who are facing domestic violence at home continues this tradition. By bringing domestic violence issues to the bargaining table when negotiating for employee benefits, security services, non-discrimination in hiring and more, unions offer a great service to their members. Properly training union stewards to assist employees when domestic violence comes to the workplace is another way unions can help. There are special actions, however, that unions can take for their members. Educating and supporting all members can make life easier for all union members trying to escape from abuse.

Follow-up questions

Is domestic violence a education part of our training for union stewards?

Do we include issues relating to domestic violence in our discussions when negotiating contracts?

What services and materials do we offer our members with domestic violence concerns?