Breaking the Code of Silence on Sexual Misconduct in the Labor Movement

Njoke Woods (left) was fired in March of 2019 after an interview she gave with Payday Report about sexual favoritism and retaliation with SEIU.

Yesterday, media columnist Ben Smith at The New York Times highlighted Payday’s work on exposing sexual misconduct in the ranks of my own union at the Pittsburgh NewsGuild

I am getting a lot of credit and thanks, but the credit should go to the survivors of sexual assault and misconduct in the labor movement who have shared their stories with Payday Report. 

While we are glad our work helped expose Fuoco and was featured in The New York Times, we know there’s much more work to be done to break the culture of silence regarding sexual misconduct. 

For 8 months, I debated what to do with the information that I learned off-the-record.

When it became clear that Fuoco was a serial sexual predator and a threat to women in my union, I acted decisively and reported these accusations of sexual misconduct right away to my national NewsGuild, which oversees Pittsburgh NewsGuild. I reported them because I believed I had knowledge of a potential crime and had a legal obligation to my fellow union members to report a leader using his position of power to abuse women. 

From previous experience covering sexual misconduct in the labor movement, I knew the damage that union leaders accused of sexual misconduct do their unions, and I’ve fought hard to report them. 

One of the happiest days of my career as a labor reporter was in November of 2017 when I called Daria Alladio, a former SEIU staffer, and told her that the SEIU organizer who sexually assaulted her lost his job. 

Alladio was surprised when I told her and asked me to re-read the statement of his firing as it slowly dawned on her that, after three years of fighting, he was removed. 

It took a second for it to register in her mind, but then she was ecstatic. 

“Oh my god. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” Alladio told me. 

The week before she went on record, Alladio and I had talked almost every night on the phone for a week as she relayed her fears and anxieties about coming forward. Two years earlier, Alladio had decided to ultimately leave her job working as a union staffer at SEIU 32BJ in Boston because of the tensions created by her push to remove the man who had sexually assaulted her. 

I grew up in a UE family and have spent most of my life in the labor movement. My life is the labor movement. So, it broke my heart to hear Alladio describe how she decided, in the end, to leave the labor movement. 

Alladio said she had wanted to come forward to help break the culture of silence around sexual misconduct in the labor movement. 

“Women have to be comfortable sharing their stories with others so more women do, so we can bring it to HR and management’s attention, so they can put an end to it,” Alladio told me. 

Other women weren’t so lucky. 

Njoke Woods went on the record with Payday Report and spoke about sexual misconduct within the SEIU. She was promptly fired from union staff in March of 2019. Now, she is being sued by SEIU Vice President Dave Regan in a defamation lawsuit. 

“It’s definitely retaliation,” Woods told me at that time. “They want other people to be afraid of speaking up, they have a lot of secrets that they don’t want people to know about.”

(Full disclosure: I testified on Ms. Woods in California court as part of an ongoing defamation suit).

While Woods was fired, I’ve also seen unions lose because of sexual misconduct by their leaders.  

In March of 2018, I covered how UFCW Local 135 in San Diego was attempting to unionize a group of 30 Vons grocery delivery drivers. 

Anti-union consultants hired by the company later showed workers copies of a San Diego Union-Tribune article detailing the lawsuits for sexual misconduct against the union’s leader, Mickey Kasparian. 

As I reported then, the workers ultimately voted against the union by a margin of 12-18.

“How are people going to be willing to stand up and fight for our rights knowing that we just paid out big lawsuits?” Jessica Lopez, a grocery store clerk and shop steward told me in an interview for The Guardian. 

Still, many women continue to fight against sexual misconduct in the labor movement against incredible odds.

Mindy Sturge sued SEIU for sexual misconduct while still going into work union as a staffer every day. Finally, this past January, she won a major settlement and finally left the union. 

In court documents, she cited much of Payday’s work in exposing how sexual misconduct was covered up in the union. 

She, like many women, chose to speak up because they truly believe in the labor movement. 

Yet, so many women tell me they are hesitant to go on the record because they fear they will be seen as hurting the collective effort. 

“Women who work for unions believe in what they do,” Sturges’ lawyer Kyra Subbotin told Payday Report. “They believe in the work of unions and hesitate to undermine that work when so many other groups on the right are eager to undermine that work and unions are constantly under fire.”

This creates a difficult dilemma for many women, she told me.

“So union employees who are victimized are torn: do they speak out for themselves and risk damaging the union’s reputation?” said Subbotin. “Their co-workers will question their loyalty, and they may never get ahead in a movement they support and love.” 

Sexual misconduct in the labor movement hurts everyone and it’s up to us as labor reporters to expose it.

Thank you readers for all of your support in helping us do the type of investigation that many outlets, even many labor reporters, won’t do. 

If you have information about sexual misconduct at the Post-Gazette or in the labor movement, you can contact us anonymously on signal at 412 613 8423 or email [email protected]

For sexual assault survivors looking for assistance, the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800- 656-4673 is run by the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, and they offer a list of resources online

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania offers guidance and resources for those in an unsafe and inequitable workplace and who wish to file a complaint with the PHRC or U.S. EEOC.

Donate Today to Help Us Continue to Fight Against Sexual Misconduct in the Labor Movement

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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