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Understanding The Increase in Domestic Violence During the Coronavirus Pandemic as a Union Issue

by KC Wagner

Domestic violence has been a growing concern during the COVID-19 crisis. In line with principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and gender and racial justice, and in light of its workplace impacts, domestic violence is a union issue.

Understanding Domestic Violence as a Union and Workplace Issue

The spread of COVID-19 and responses to the pandemic – physical distancing, requirements to stay home, and mass layoffs without social protections – have generated a range of financial, emotional, mental-health, and safety impacts that have disproportionately affected people of color, immigrants, women, and those with low incomes. Shelter in place mandates and guidelines may contribute to growing risks of domestic violence, exacerbating existing dynamics of power and control exerted by abusive partners.

Some unions have a long history of responding to and providing support to workers who are survivors of domestic violence. Union values of mutual aid, job security, and protection against discrimination can be guiding principles in defining the role unions can play during the current phase of COVID-19 and in the future. For examples of collective bargaining language and other measures that unions have taken, see resources from AFSCME and CWA.

The protests that have erupted nationwide in response to police brutality and racist violence speak to the reality that systemic racism and oppression are inseparable from many of the issues working people confront. Our responses to gender-based and domestic violence must recognize how they are entwined with systemic racism and other systems of oppression and exploitation. As Vera House did in this powerful letter, we must continue drawing these connections as we support workers and survivors.

Member Outreach and Messaging

Messaging from union leadership expressing support for members who may be experiencing domestic violence is critical. This information should be conveyed through standard union communication tools, which might include text messaging and emails. Consider how to safely include these resources in other general information as a safety precaution. The following are examples of key points that unions leaders, organizers, and shop stewards can convey:

  • The union understands that there has been an increase in domestic violence during the lockdown related to COVID-19.
  • There is no excuse for domestic violence.
  • The union is committed to ensuring that all workers are safe from gender-based violence and harassment in their workplaces and in their homes.

Connecting Union Members to External Resources

Unions can provide a lifeline to their members by informing them of local and national resources on domestic violence. As suggested above, such information can be shared through the usual channels union leaders and organizers use to communicate with members. Below are additional points for union leaders in New York to consider in regard connecting members to resources during COVID-19 and beyond:

  • Union representatives can introduce themselves to hotline staff or local health centers so they can provide the kind of workplace context members are navigating, learn about ongoing service provider webinars, and share community-based resources with members. See
  • Union representatives can also assist members in contacting a hotline to make a connection with a local community provider. See
  • There are hotlines and shelters that provide culturally specific services and resources in multiple languages. See
  • Refer to collectively bargained language on discrimination, worker benefits and safety and health that could often be used to protect and support domestic violence survivors.
  • Use city and state anti-discrimination laws that provide protection to employees who “are or perceived to be a victim of domestic violence,” protect their confidentiality or retaliate against them for disclosing cases of abuse. For more information see toolkit-update-2020-1.pdf -Legal Momentum 5.2020.pdf
  • The union can request vacation and paid sick leave time or for members to connect with advocates and discuss options, and union representatives should familiarize themselves with relevant city and state laws:
  • Under shelter in place guidelines, accessing resources in person may be challenging. However, there are tele-counseling, tele-legal, and tele-advocacy resources that survivors can access. For more information see New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
  • According to the National Network of Domestic Violence, shelters are open and observing stringent public health protocols. New York shelters will also have access to other safe spaces if residents need to be quarantined due to COVID-19.
  • Union membership is a microcosm of society; consequently there may be union members whose behavior is abusive. Unions may learn about this from concerned co-workers or members who are in partnership with other members whose behavior is abusive. There are local, state, and national programs to address abusive behavior of partners. These include programs that seek to engage men as allies who can influence other men and that provide assistance to those who need to recognize their own abusive behavior. For more information, see CONNECT and A Call to Men. These programs also recognize the importance of moving beyond the carceral response as the only solution to domestic violence; they recognize that many communities seek to avoid relying on law enforcement agencies for protection due to deeply entrenched issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and deportation.
  • Unions can post information about these and other resources on their webpages. Some union locals and internationals have created resource guides for their members

Call to Action: Act Locally Think Globally to Make Change

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be adding fuel to the long-standing global epidemic of domestic violence. A recent convention (C190) adopted by the International Labor Organization in June 2019 addresses the impact of domestic and intimate partner violence on the workplace, outlines specific measures to protect vulnerable workers from gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), and recognizes the home as a place of work. The ILO has issued a brief on how C190 can be leveraged as a tool for governments, employers and unions to address domestic violence in the COVID-19 context.

Unions can use their influence in coalition with allies, service providers and communities to push for legislation at the city, state, and federal levels that includes language similar to Convention 190. This could create the legal context for unions to then either interpret existing CBA language on harassment, disrcimination and safety and health more broadly. Or, include such provisions in upcoming collective bargaining agreements, and in joint labor and management initiative such as work/family and safety and health committee work.

KC Wagner

  • Director of Workplace Issues at Cornell University's ILR Metro District Office in New York City.

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