15 Women’s Oppression in the Home and the Workplace: The Campaign to Reinstate Shirley Venable: Domestic Violence at Home and Harassment on the Job Shirley Venable and supporters protest what they call her unjust firing Monday in front of the Raleigh Municipal Building.
by Ashaki Binta (Charlotte)
Shirley Venable was unjustly fired from her job in June 2011. A 10-year veteran worker in a non-traditional job as a female sanitation truck driver for the City of Raleigh, North Carolina -- Shirley had an excellent work record. An observer might call her feisty, mouthy, outgoing, funny, and hard working. But she was also known as compassionate, thoughtful, and well-liked by the residents on her routes. She compiled years of outstanding evaluations and above average merit pay increases.
Shirley was estranged from her husband and had a restraining order against him. Near the end of June 2011, the ex-husband broke into her home and hid under her bed with a knife. He had also stolen one of her cars and left it in an outlying area. Shirley noticed the break-in when she got home from work one evening and called the Sheriff to check her home before she entered. They cleared the house but unfortunately did not look under the beds and missed the hiding ex-husband. Once the Sheriff left, the estranged husband appeared, stabbing and torturing Shirley all through the night, while he let her know he was going to kill her. The next morning, the police returned to Shirley’s home to update her that they had found her stolen vehicle. She cried out for help and the police broke in and saved her life. The ex-husband was arrested and Shirley was taken to the hospital where she was treated for multiple stab wounds and shock but was ok.
Upon returning to work days later, co-workers and her supervisor noticed that Shirley had a bandaged hand and other injuries. The majority male workforce began to tease and ridicule her, including her supervisor who made outrageous and insensitive statements, after asking what happened to her, such as “Oh, you know your old man “f…d” you up!” The supervisor continued his insensitive assault in the days that followed by accusing Shirley of not carrying her load on the job – something she took pride in. One morning an argument between Shirley, some of her co-workers, and the supervisor ensued. After the back and forth, Shirley went on to her truck and started on her route as usual. She also called Human Resources to report the harassment she was getting from her co-workers and the supervisor. Later that morning, Shirley was called in from her truck, accused of violating the Raleigh Workplace Violence Policy by threatening her supervisor and subsequently fired. The supervisor and the co-workers who ridiculed Shirley were not fired.
Domestic violence advocacy groups vary on the severity of the problem of domestic violence, but most agree that from 29 to over 50% of African American women (and 12% of African American men) report at least one incident of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes … usually much more. Reportedly, Black females as well as African Americans in general experience intimate partner violence in greater numbers than any other race, though the occurrence may be declining similar to other reported violent crime statistics in general. (Crime reporting statistics may serve many purposes either to justify the direction law enforcement might be taking or to create a more favorable image of society for various reasons. How is it that crime statistics have been dramatically declining over the past several decades yet the US maintains the highest rate of incarceration than any country in the world!)
The Black Liberation Movement must include the struggle against domestic and intimate partner violence as an aspect of the struggle against women’s oppression, both within our communities and against capitalism and the US imperialist state which creates the conditions that breeds and ultimately upholds such abuse under patriarchy.
Left, Shirley Venable; Right, some of her supporters
UE Local 150, Raleigh City Workers members brought Shirley’s case to the union. A grievance was filed on her behalf and the grievance was taken all the way through the official grievance process, including the final stage of the grievance procedure at the Raleigh Civil Service Commission. It took more than a year for the Commission to convene the hearing for Shirley Venable, even then only as a result of a struggle from the union to have the case heard.
Although the Civil Service Commission consists of a 7 member panel, only 5 of the 7 members were present to hear Shirley’s Case. At the end of the process, the Commission voted 3 to 2 that the City of Raleigh had not acted properly in the termination of Shirley Venable. However, the city then invoked an unfair Commission policy that 4 out of 7 votes were needed to overturn a City decision. Clearly this was a violation of due process as only 5 of the 7 Commissioners were present to hear the Case. The panel was comprised of 4 whites and 1 African American, 3 women and 2 men. Thus, the vote broke down along gender lines as the 3 women voted to overturn the City’s decision and the 2 males voted to uphold the termination!
Yet, Shirley Venable has never been returned to her job. Appeals have been made to both the Mayor and the City Council by community supporters, Black Workers for Justice, and the United Electrical Workers (UE).
Human rights are also at issue in this case as Shirley Venable’s rights to work free of harassment and a hostile work environment; to a fair and effective process under the grievance procedure; and to a stronger union base because North Carolina has a law on the books that prohibits collective bargaining for public sector workers – were all violated in this egregious case.
Black women also suffer disproportionately in the workplace when it comes to issues and incidents of sexual harassment, hostile work environments, and discrimination and their complaints are often dismissed or taken less seriously.
The struggle of the Black Liberation Movement to build new, social movement trade unionism in the US South must also include the question of human rights in the workplace and the specific conditions faced by African American women on the job.
The struggle for Shirley Venable to be reinstated to her job continues and is being spearheaded by UE Local 150 and the Black Workers for Justice. It remains a very difficult fight to win … but justice demands that the struggle be waged with the goal of winning!