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Ford sexual harassment hearing a risky business for Chicago aldermen

An array of police vehicles — many made by Ford — were displayed at the Department of Fleet and Facility Management in 2012 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a news conference to announce the purchase of more Ford vehicles by the Chicago Police Department. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

The City Council’s Finance Committee will jump head-first into the “Me, Too” movement on Tuesday — by taking testimony about sexual harassment in the workplace from employees at Ford Motor Co.’s two Chicago plants.

Aldermen will be joined by several elephants in the room, making the hearing a bit of a risky business.

If Ald. Marty Quinn (13th), a Finance Committee member, dares to attend, as he normally would, he could be bombarded with questions about the go-between role he played with his own brother in the sexual harassment scandal in the organization of House Speaker Michael Madigan.

ANALYSIS

If Quinn doesn’t show his face, his empty seat will speak volumes.

Yet another elephant in the room is Amazon.

At a time when Chicago has offered a $2.25 billion incentive package to lure Amazon’s second North American headquarters, what kind of message would the public shaming of another major corporation send to Amazon about the way Chicago politicians do business?

Finally, there’s Ford itself.

EDITORIAL: Why Ford is in hot water again over sexual harassment

If aldermen don’t like how the company has treated female employees, why is the city purchasing all its police vehicles from Ford?

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th), who introduced the resolution demanding the hearing, hung up on a Chicago Sun-Times reporter attempting to raise those questions.

Ald. Marge Laurino (39th), one of three female co-sponsors, said: “It’s important to hold their feet to the fire.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried out a new Chicago-built Ford Interceptor police vehicles when they were being delivered to the Chicago Police Department back in 2012. I Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

If aldermen really want to do that, Laurino was asked, why not threaten to cancel Ford’s police car contract?

“You’re putting the cart before the horse. … Let’s bring `em in and see what they’re doing to address decades of allegations of sexual harassment,” Laurino said.

If aldermen are not satisfied with Ford’s response or if Ford executives boycott the hearing, Laurino said, “We’ll make some decisions based on that.”

The mayor’s office said Ford executives will not attend.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett has apologized to his Chicago employees for what he called “gut-wrenching” accounts in the New York Times of sexual harassment at the assembly and stamping plants in Chicago. The alleged harassment included physical assaults, drawings of penises spray-painted on floors and carved into tables and male employees openly commenting about the physical anatomy of female co-workers.

Last summer, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated and reached a $10 million settlement with Ford that was all the more troubling because of history. Nearly 20 years ago, Ford paid $22 million to settle similar allegations of racial and sexual harassment and promised to make certain it never happened again. A lawsuit stemming from the new allegations is still pending.

“I promise that we will learn from this and we will do better,” Hackett wrote in a December letter to Ford employees.

“There is absolutely no room for harassment at Ford. … Our promise is there will be no retaliation against anyone who speaks up, and no one is above the rules, no matter where they are in the hierarchy. … We have zero tolerance for any behavior like this, and we will stamp it out together.”

Sources said top mayoral aides are not exactly thrilled about the hearing. But they apparently made no effort to discourage Burke from holding a hearing that could change the subject from political controversies swirling around the powerful Finance chairman because of the property tax appeals work he does on behalf of President Donald Trump and other clout-heavy clients.

“Going back many years, the City Council has used hearings to raise issues about the policies and practices of Chicago’s corporate citizens, and the issue of sexual harassment is obviously one that should be taken seriously as well,” said Adam Collins, the mayor’s communications director.

Laurino was asked about the sexual harassment allegations swirling around Madigan’s political organization and Quinn.

“We’ll deal with one issue at a time. … I’m not trying to make it bigger than it is,” she said.

As for Amazon, Laurino said: “I don’t think it sends a bad message. We’re just asking [Ford] to come and tell us what it is they’re doing to address their sexual harassment issues. And maybe other companies can learn from what they’re doing.”

Amazon has dealt with its own harassment case; Roy Price, head of its Amazon Studios unit, resigned last year after a producer alleged sexual misconduct.

In February 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to purchase 500 Ford Interceptor sedans and SUVs over five years built at Ford’s South Side plant. Four years later, the City Council voted to finance the purchase of another 600 police vehicles for the 970 new officers Emanuel has promised to hire over two years.