As a doctoral student and teaching assistant at York University, Alexandria Petit-Thorne got involved with her union for two reasons: to fight for stable jobs in academia, and to put pressure on her employer to create a fund for sexual violence survivors on campus.

But during a contentious five months of striking and picketing in 2018, she was allegedly subjected to “an overt pattern of sexual harassment” by the chairperson of her own union’s local unit — which lacked a formal policy to deal with her complaints and “utterly and manifestly” failed to address it, according to a claim filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

At the heart of her HRTO application is how unions — whose mission is to advocate for safe and healthy workplaces — deal with problems like harassment within their own ranks. Petit-Thorne sees solving that challenge as central to the labour movement’s values.

“The point of a union is to protect its members from systemic abuse and exploitation,” she said in an interview. “This is systemic abuse. If the union is not going to protect us from this, then it’s not serving its purpose.”

In an emailed response to the Star, a spokesperson for CUPE’s national office said the union “takes matters of harassment very seriously.”

The statement said all locals were “encouraged” to adopt the union’s code of conduct embedded in its constitution, which “sets out standards of behaviour” for members.

“If possible, a member may attempt to deal directly with the person alleged to have engaged in behaviour contrary to the Code, by asking him/her to stop such behaviour,” the constitution says.

If the alleged perpetrator is a union staffer and asking them to stop doesn’t work, the member “may bring forward a complaint” that will be dealt with according to “the applicable staff collective agreement,” it adds.

Petit-Thorne’s HRTO application says that policy is “manifestly inappropriate for complaints about sexual harassment or violence,” and that CUPE and her local 3903, which represents teaching assistants, were aware of a long-standing internal “culture of gender and sex discrimination.”

Her claim alleges she experienced months of harassment at the hands of CUPE 3903 chairperson Devin Lefebvre starting last June, when union members were engaged in a contentious strike with York University. Precarious jobs and demands to create a sexual violence survivors fund at York were among the key issues in the labour dispute.

The harassment, her application says, took the form of sexual advances from the chairperson, unwanted sexual comments, verbal harassment, comments about her sexual orientation, discussing sexual relations and sexual fantasies, pressure to engage with him sexually, and spreading sexually charged rumours about her to other union members.

Examples included a Facebook post where Petit-Thorne, who is working toward her PhD in social anthropology, “was mockingly equated with Monica Lewinsky by other CUPE 3903 members,” the application says.

Despite requests to stop the behaviour and numerous attempts to reconcile with Lefebvre, the “cycle” of unwanted behaviour repeated itself over and over again between June and November 2018,” according to the claim. But when Petit-Thorne finally raised the issue with her local in October, the union “failed to take meaningful or adequate steps to address these systemic problems,” the HRTO application says.

“They have conducted no investigation. They have provided no resolution or redress to the application, nor any sanction against Mr. Lefebvre,” the application says.

Instead, the alleged perpetrator was allowed to “direct” the local’s response to her union complaint and “actively participate in decision-making about it,” according to the HRTO claim.

Lefebvre did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment. CUPE and local 3903 are named as the respondents in the HRTO application.

Petit-Thorne first sought to address the issues through the local’s equity officer who suggested her concerns be brought to the local’s executive committee, according to the application. But the alleged perpetrator did not recuse himself from the subsequent meeting on the topic, “despite the clear conflict of interest,” the claim says.

Initially, the executive did arrive at a resolution that satisfied Petit-Thorne: the chairperson agreed he would not contact her directly, would attend anti-sexual violence training, and would issue an apology, according to the application. But shortly after, the claim says, Lefebvre said he had been advised not to apologize unless she signed a “general release of liability.”

Petit-Thorne’s complaint was subsequently discussed “in detail” at two union meetings, including a Dec. 6 general membership gathering where she was publicly named as the complainant. The general membership was then invited to openly debate details of the allegations, the application says.

“Members were permitted to rise and express their views on the complaint. While some supported the applicant, others suggested that she should be held accountable for sexually provocative behaviour,” the HRTO submission says.

Present at the December meeting was York doctoral student Mandi Gray, who in 2015 filed sexual assault charges against then-CUPE 3903 executive member Mustafa Ururyar. Ururyar was convicted in 2016. But the high-profile verdict — praised by some for tackling persistent myths about rape — was later overturned on appeal by a Superior Court judge for being “incomprehensible” and failing to adequately explain the reasoning for the conviction.

In an interview with the Star, Gray said she had not met Petit-Thorne prior to Dec. 6, but had heard of the harassment complaint. She decided to attend because she felt her own experiences closely mirrored Petit-Thorne’s: she had met Ururyar at a union meeting during a contentious strike period where solidarity manifested itself “as overlooking sexual violence,” she says.

Gray describes what she saw at the December meeting as “disgusting” and “absolutely traumatizing.”

“When I arrived they opened it up to the floor and had everybody just air their personal grievances about her,” she recalls. “It communicated to me very clearly that nothing has changed. It just reaffirmed the local hasn’t shifted in terms of the culture of sexual violence and protecting perpetrators.”

The agenda for the December meeting include a statement from the executive to members that acknowledged its failure to develop a “process that allows members to feel safe and supported in bringing forward complaints.”

But the statement also said Lefebvre would not be making an apology at that time, adding he had expressed his “intent” to do so “at some time in the future.”

In an email correspondence with Petit-Thorne seen by the Star, Lefebvre acknowledged making a “series of mistakes” for which he took “full responsibility” and wanted to apologize for.

“But if I’m being honest, I need your help. I need to better understand what your experience has been. And Alex, I desperately want to understand,” the email says.

Ultimately, a non-confidence motion on Lefebvre’s leadership passed at the December meeting but he did not resign, according to the application. The executive said members should circulate a petition calling for a binding vote on whether he should remain chairperson. This process, known as recall, was enshrined in local 3903’s bylaws.

The executive did not take any steps of its own to remove Lefebvre, the application says.

Then, less than a month later, the union’s national office invalidated the recall provisions of CUPE 3903’s bylaws. The HRTO application says Petit-Thorne was subsequently told by the local’s equity officer that they could not assist members in complaints against each other, but only in grievances against York University.

Petit-Thorne reported her allegations to the university’s Centre for Sexual Violence, Response, Support and Education after she lost confidence in the union’s willingness to intervene, she says. In February, York appointed an external investigator to look into Lefebvre’s alleged behaviour toward her, according to her application.

In a statement to the Star, York spokesperson Yanni Dagonas said the university could not discuss complaints brought forward for privacy reasons.

“I can say that we are committed to strengthening measures that support survivors and provide the safest possible environment for our community members,” Dagonas said.

Across Canada, unions have vocally pushed for government legislation and employer protections for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. In Ontario, for example, more than 10 unions — including CUPE — signed a 2016 pledge to make domestic and sexual violence protections a priority in their contract negotiations with employers. The Ontario Federation of Labour was also part of a coalition that successfully pushed the province to improve paid sexual and domestic violence leave provisions for all workers.

But how unions deal with internal sexual harassment and assault claims is also attracting attention. Gray says unions need to find a way to institute robust policies to deal with sexual harassment — or risk alienating existing or future members.

“This is a systemic level issue. How many people are you pushing out by allowing this behaviour to continue? Who are you prioritizing in this movement?”

While CUPE’s constitution does contain a trial procedure for complaints, the HRTO application says it places the burden on victims to publicly “bring forward, prosecute and prove that the accused has breached the (union’s) bylaws, before a trial committee of the union.”

And while the union’s constitution contains an “Equality Statement” that demands “mutual respect, co-operation, and understanding between members,” the application says it has “failed to develop or apply appropriate policies and procedures to promote equality for its members and in particular for victims of sexual assault or harassment.”

“We walked the line for five months for a sexual violence survivors fund,” Petit-Thorne says. “So it’s just kind of insulting that you would not have any kind of process of addressing sexual violence within the union, especially when we know that it’s prevalent.”

“I’ve been told that I’m causing harm in the community by bringing this to light, that I’m hurting the union,” she added. “Which is so painful because I’ve put my blood sweat and tears into this union and I’m a proud unionist.”

A key demand of the HRTO application is that the union create proper procedures to deal with sexual harassment complaints by members, including the retention of an independent third party to oversee the implementation of policies and mandatory training.

The application, which could be resolved either through mediation or a full hearing, also seeks a total of $400,000 in damages for discrimination, psychological and emotional distress, and loss of academic and career advancement. Petit-Thorne says being on campus now prompts panic attacks and that the impact of her experience has “completely derailed” her day-to-day life.

“This was an opportunity for (the union) executive to say, we don’t tolerate sexual violence regardless of who the alleged perpetrator is. And in practice, what they have done is send a strong message loud and clear that if you come forward you are going to be degraded, you are going to be humiliated, you are going to have your character assassinated, you are not going to be believed,” she said.

“I can’t in good conscience just let that slide.”

Originally posted on by Sara Mojtehedzadeh on March 15, 2019