Women doubtful Ford sincere on harassment

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Suzette Wright, left, and Rosalind Warnell were part of a sexual harassmant suit against Ford and the Chicago Assembly Plant in 1998. | Sun-Times files

Rosalind Warnell felt she couldn’t escape.

The jokes. The grabs. The lewd language.

In meetings, on the assembly line, in phone calls to her home, the Ford Motor Co. worker alleges, she was sexually harassed nearly every day.

It got so bad that whenever a particular co-worker would appear, “I would run and hide behind a press so he couldn’t see me,” says Warnell, who worked at the Ford stamp plant in Chicago Heights. “That’s not a good feeling.”

It was, however, one that Ford worker Suzette Wright said she shared.

“There were times when I would drive to work, sit in the parking lot and cry my eyes out,” said Wright, who worked at the Ford assembly plant on Torrence Avenue. “I knew what work was going to bring for me. I knew I was going to have a man say something off-color or touch me. I knew it every single day that I went to work.”

In federal lawsuits and complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the women allege a culture of behavior that included “pictures, posters and drawings that are humiliating to women . . . in full view at various parts of the plant.”

They describe a workplace where slurs and sexual obscenities were an everyday part of the job and where women feared retaliation.

In a sworn affidavit, Warnell described numerous stories of harassment , including a December, 1995, Christmas party at which a co-worker “grabbed my hair from the back, spun me around, kissed me and placed his tongue in my mouth. . . . The employees present all laughed.”

Wright said the worst moment came for her when she was five months pregnant. A co-worker, she alleges, remarked how her condition must have affected her genitals.

The women said they were unimpressed by an announcement late last month that the company had fired four low-level managers and disciplined four others for sexual and racial harassment .

Nor were they heartened by initiatives offered by a top company official and a lecture on the company’s “zero tolerance” policy.

“These are things they’ve done for years,” Warnell said.

Ford officials said it disciplined the four workers for taking part in off-plant parties that allegedly featured strippers and prostitutes_parties that may have been advertised at the plants.

They said that, in general, off-hours activities would not be grounds for discipline, but that in this case a message needed to be sent. The other four men were fired for harassment unrelated to the parties, they said.

What caused skepticism among Warnell, Wright and others is the timing of Ford ‘s actions. They came shortly after NBC’s newsmagazine “Dateline” told the company it had a tape of one of the parties from about 10 years ago. The show is scheduled to air in about two weeks.

It was after that information came to light that Ford Vice President Robert Transou called together employees at the Ford plant in Chicago Heights to reiterate the company’s policy on racial and sexual harassment : “Simply put: You break the rules, you are out,” he said.

Transou announced that the company was hiring an outside consultant to evaluate its anti- harassment efforts and that it was bringing in a team of workers from Detroit as part of an education effort.

He touted a confidential toll-free line, which women could call to complain about harassment . He apologized to men who were smeared unfairly and vowed to root out those who were not. “If you could attend that meeting and not understand the severity of the message that was being imparted, then you weren’t paying attention,” Ford spokesman Jim Trainor said.

The actions were spurred not by word of the tape, Trainor said, but because “our people want to get rid of this problem. . . . We have a problem, we recognize it and we’re trying to do something about it,” he said.

For Warnell, Wright and others, the message was that Ford was trying to head off negative publicity.

The two women_on medical leave for work-related stress they claim is from harassment _wonder why the discipline is happening now, when women have been complaining for years.

They say many of the worst offenders are escaping punishment and doubt whether the initiatives announced in Thursday’s speech will be enforced once publicity has died down. They pointed out that the toll-free number is nothing new_that women simply hadn’t known about it.

“To me, it’s a case of been there, done that,” said attorney Keith Hunt, who won a settlement in 1995 for nine women who claimed racial and sexual harassment at Ford .

He is now representing about 20 other Ford workers at Torrence and Chicago Heights, including Wright and Warnell, in lawsuits and complaints to the EEOC.

“That’s too bad that someone would think that way,” Trainor said. “We haven’t been there and done that. We’ve never brought everyone into the plant in five waves of meetings and had them spoken to by the top manufacturing guy in the world. That was unprecedented.”

Trainor also pointed out that not all women at Ford have shared the experiences of Warnell and Wright.

Janine McMillan, for instance, a plant floor worker for three years, said “I’ve never experienced any type of sexual harassment .”

“I’m not going to say I’ve never been invited out for a drink,” she added. “But when I haven’t wanted to I’ve said no.”

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