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Workplace Bullying

PSRP Reporter
May/June 2011
Feature Story

Singled out. Picked on. Discriminated against. Bullied. All of these are terms for the same thing, says Sharon Baker of the Totem Association of Education Support Personnel in Anchorage, Alaska, and she has no doubt whatsoever that paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs) across America have endured harassment and intimidation from other adults on the job. What follows are the stories of PSRPs (their names have been changed or omitted) who have taken a deep breath and confronted their bully or enlisted the union for help in solving their bully problem. It’s not always possible to neutralize a bully right away, but even the worst bullies can be stopped.

Take the case of a library assistant at New York University. A native of Ghana, this AFT member was bullied by a supervisor who called him a monkey, taunted him about eating bananas and told him, “Go back to your cage” and “Go back to the jungle.” With a big assist from the Union of Clerical, Administrative & Technical Staff in New York City, he was able to file a federal lawsuit against the university for failing to protect his civil rights (see Reporter, January/February 2011).

Not every case of bullying becomes a federal case, but most go well beyond rude behavior. Sometimes, working for a bully requires a simple “no” that’s hard to say, as when PSRPs have been instructed to lie for their bosses. In Michigan, an AFT member refused to falsify documents. And in Louisiana, a principal told a paraprofessional she had to lie or look for another job.

From California come several stories of bullying. One new principal told a career secretary that if she applied for a promotion under the district’s new reclassification system, she would “ruin it” for the rest of the staff. The secretary finally asked her union for help and obtained a transfer to the central office, where she’s thriving.

“You know what the sad thing is?” the union rep asks. “This is an education institution, of all things. You would think that the educational setting would be more progressive.”

Sadly, that’s not always the case. Another principal constantly picked on a custodian with special needs who had been groomed for his job, in which he took great pride and served as an inspiration. When the abuse came to the attention of the custodian’s union rep, he met with the principal and questioned her ability to work with special education students.

“If you can’t work with a special needs adult, how can you work with children?” the rep remembers asking. “After that, it ended. The harping, the constant write-ups—it all ended.”

Making life miserable

Although schoolyard bullying has attracted national attention, workplace bullying has become a quiet epidemic, says Gary Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group based in Bellingham, Wash. According to a WBI survey last year, 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying. Another 15 percent have witnessed it.

A bully can be a boss, co-worker or supervisor. Sixty-two percent of bullies are men, while 58 percent of targets are women, according to the survey. Women target women 80 percent of the time.

“Dumping on employees by workplace bullies can make life miserable,” says Namie, who has teamed up with his wife, Ruth, to put a stop to workplace bullying since the early 1990s. “It is repeated, health-harming abusive mistreatment committed by bosses and co-workers. And employers are letting down their workers by refusing to address the problem; it is an organ-izational abdication of responsibility. We don’t tolerate domestic abuse or child abuse. Why is abuse in the workplace tolerated? People have to stop accepting this kind of behavior.”

Unlike schoolyard bullying, workplace targets aren’t singled out for being weak but because they pose a threat to the bully, Namie says. Targets often are independent-minded, more technically skilled than their bullies, better liked and nonconfrontational. Nearly 40 percent of targets never tell their employers for fear of retaliation or reprisal.

No state or federal law addresses workplace bullying. Namie’s group has crafted model legislation that would compel employers to prevent workplace bullying. This legislation has been introduced in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

Despite the lack of protections, workplace bullying can be addressed, and unions in particular are in a good position to help. Namie suggests that union members ask for training to become “internal experts” on bullying so they can create a bully-free environment. “Unions can take the lead in defining the problem,” he says.

There is power in a union

An AFT activist in Florida provides an excellent example of how the union can provide a shield against institutional bullying. At her school, says building rep Patrice Duke, the principal has little understanding of how important it is to use certain procedures in caring for children with disabilities.

“There’s no support. People live in fear,” Duke says. “We know when our principal stands like this [fists on hips], that is his bully stance. He comes to intimidate you.”

Duke remains undaunted. If students come to school chronically sick, or if employees want a voice in their job evaluations or the way resources are allocated, she marches right into the principal’s office.

He once inquired as to why she was speaking on behalf of others. When she told him they were afraid of him, he laughed in disbelief.

“I’m not afraid to go talk to him about union issues, because we’re equal,” says Duke, a member of her local AFT-NEA affiliate. “He says, ‘Why are you concerned about these issues?’ That’s disrespectful to me.”

The principal once left Duke’s name off the agenda of a school committee meeting (she’s an officer) and refused—for no apparent reason, and against district policy—to establish other committees as needed. “If I was very passive and never said anything, I would never have a voice again,” Duke says.

She encourages every colleague to step forward and speak out because she fears that if certain Florida legislators have their way and weaken the power of unions in her state, employees will be bullied even more.

With Duke’s help, her bullying boss is trying to mend his ways. He even asked her permission to attend a union meeting, where he stood up and told members he supports them in their fight to preserve public education in Florida.

“Things have changed for the better,” she says. “We have gotten some respect. But that’s because we, as a union, came in and did something about it.” (Go to page 4 of this month's issue to see what you can do.)

—ANNETTE LICITRA, ADRIENNE COLES