A long-overdue backlash against sexual harassment and assault in the workplace has now taken down dozens of wealthy, famous and powerful men in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Washington — and that is all for the good.
You can bet the outrage and activism will trickle down, as it were, and #MeToo will become a force to reckon with in factories and warehouses, as well.
For this new day to become permanent, though, constant vigilance will be required, long after the Harvey Weinsteins and Charlie Roses have retreated in shame. Or the ugliness will come roaring back.
A case in point: Almost two decades ago, in 1999, Ford Motor Co. paid $22 million to settle sexual harassment lawsuits and end an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at two Ford plants on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side and in Chicago Heights.
For a while, the harassment subsided. Workers received additional training to address harassment. Independent monitors on the factory floor watched for abuse.
Once the monitors left, though, it didn’t take long for the harassment to start up again, according to a report on Wednesday in the New York Times. And now Ford is right back where it was 18 years ago — in violation of federal law to protect people from employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, color or national origin.
In August, the EEOC announced that Ford had agreed to pay up to $10.125 million to settle claims of sexual and racial harassment at those same two Chicago-area plants.
It wasn’t just Ford executives who failed to safeguard employees from harassment. The workers’ own union came up short, too.
Nothing new here, either.
“Ford should not be let off the hook for any outrages at its Torrence Avenue and Chicago Heights plants,” the Sun-Times Editorial Board wrote in 1999. “But unions, whose leaders always talk about their battles to improve working conditions, should not get a pass when they fail to respond to a pattern of sexual or racial harassment by one group of their members against co-workers.”
In most such sexual harassment cases, the union represents both the accuser and the accused. That’s a tough spot to be in when people’s jobs are on the line.
“The union has got an impossible job,” George Galland, an independent monitor at the Chicago plants years ago, told the New York Times. “They’re supposed to protect their members. Unions are ill at ease helping management control sexual harassment. They tend to throw monkey wrenches where they can.”
The Times reports that some union representatives minimized reports of harassment at Ford. Tonya Exum, who works at a plant, told the newspaper she reported being groped but was told by a union rep that it wasn’t sexual harassment because the offending co-worker had grabbed her “one time.”
A top union official at the assembly plant was accused of harassment and suspended. Later, an arbitrator overturned the suspension, according to the Times.
For his part, Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett offered the company’s apologies in a letter to all employees on Thursday and vowed the company would do better.
“Candidly, it was gut wrenching to read the accounts of these women in The New York Times article,” Hackett wrote. “We have zero tolerance for any behavior like this, and we will stamp it out together.”
The union, like Ford’s management, simply has to do better. Or the union is part of the problem.
All too often, the women at Ford who were kissed, grabbed or subjected to lewd comments and text messages faced pressure to just let it go. If they reported abuse, they were branded troublemakers at auto plants that were lucky to survive the Great Recession. Some 5,300 men and women work at the plants.
Some say allegations are too hard to prove — that it becomes a he-said, she-said with no possibility for a fair outcome. We challenge bosses and corporate boards to conduct more thorough investigations.
At Ford, some co-workers defended a man who was accused of coming on to a woman by — how charming! — boasting about the size of his penis. The woman, Christie Van, accused a second man of texting a lewd photo. But Ford’s management, while it conducted an investigation, did not bother to interview workers who backed up the woman’s claims.
Later, without citing specific incidents or harassers, the EEOC found that Van had, indeed, been harassed, subjected to retaliation and gender discrimination.
Outrage fades, but culture runs deep. We dare not look away, not now or in the decades to come.
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