In many ways, a school building or a college campus is the perfect place for workplace bullying to flourish.
Schools and campuses can have many decentralized physical workplaces. An adult who has been targeted for bullying may be in the perfect place — either alone or in a small-group setting — for the bully to take advantage.
Education locals around the country — including at NYSUT — are striving to make their workplaces safe and to expose bullies for what they are: a costly source of stress, humiliation and inequity. Bullies can drive up health-care expenses, contribute to high absenteeism among their victims and detract from the students' education.
Education unionists say they are speaking out because administrators, in large part, rarely address bullying.
"The reasons they don't do very much is because they don't have to — it is not illegal to bully someone in the workplace in New York state," says Iris DeLutro, vice president for cross-campus units at the Professional Staff Congress, NYSUT's higher education affiliate at the City University of New York, and a NYSUT Board member who has studied bullying and its effects in the workplace.
Workplace violence and discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs are addressed by federal and state laws, but bullying — which might not involve violence or single out a victim's race or ethnicity — falls into a gray area that is usually handled only through internal disciplinary policies.
DeLutro's workshop on bullying in educational settings at the recent NYSUT Community College conference struck a chord with many in the audience.
Among them was Jennifer Brownell, third vice president of the Onondaga Community College Federation of Teachers and Administrators. Brownell recently reported a colleague for bullying two female employees in a vicious barrage of verbal abuse.
Brownell described the bully's behavior as humiliating, intimidating and shocking in its audacity. Brownell was in easy earshot of the incident, but the bully seemed to neither notice nor care. Brownell reported the incident to an administrator on the campus and as a result, she noted, "it's being investigated." Brownell said deciding to report the incident was difficult, but she felt she had to.
NYSUT's national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, has tackled bullying head-on with a series of informative articles for its members that have appeared in AFT publications, including PSRP Reporter, the national publication of AFT paraprofessionals and school-related professionals. Last year, the AFT passed a resolution "in support of a healthy workplace and against workplace bullying," in which the AFT renewed its commitment to the passage of laws that would make workplace bullying illegal, and also to provide examples of contract language to locals that seek to address bullying during collective bargaining.
"Our NYSUT members are often at the forefront of efforts to make the workplace better, and workplace bullying is really a health and safety issue that employers and campus administrators need to address as well as our union sisters and brothers," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, whose office oversees health and safety issues for the union. "We can shine a light on this problem, but it will take collaboration to change attitudes about it in our schools and on our campuses. We intend to continue efforts to make that happen."
In New York, the problem is gaining recognition at the legislative level. A bill before the Labor Committee of the state Senate would address workplace bullying by establishing a civil cause of action for employees who are subjected to an abusive work environment.
However, as DeLutro explained, the lack of a specific law need not deter a bullying victim from legal action in egregious cases where all other efforts to resolve the problem have failed. Six years ago, two female PSC members settled a discrimination lawsuit against CUNY that claimed a pattern of abuse, discrimination and harassment by a male supervisor.
The best way to stop bullying would be to outlaw it, but until that happens, DeLutro advises strength in numbers and solidarity to bullying victims.
"Don't suffer in silence," she tells union colleagues. "If you wait too long, it escalates. We know as unionists that you can't do this alone."