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Three women tell harrowing stories of sexual harassment at Ford Chicago plants

Christie Van, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. alleging racial and sexual harassment at two Chicago plants, testified before the City Council Finance Committee on Tuesday at City Hall. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times

Three African-American women came forward Tuesday with vulgar and humiliating stories about sexual harassment and bullying they say they endured while working at Ford Motor Company’s two Chicago plants.

With 15 aldermen in rapt attention — not including the absent Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) — Tonya Exum, Christie Van and Miyoshi Morris told of being greeted on their first day on the job with chants of “fresh meat.”

They accused male colleagues of masturbating on the assembly line, showing off pictures of their penises, groping and propositioning women and retaliating against those who refused to “go along with the program.”

Van said she was pulled into a room by a male co-worker who was 6-foot-3-inches tall and weighed 300 pounds. There, she was thrown against a window, groped and dropped to the floor.

She chose to wear overalls at the stamping plant to discourage lewd remarks and rampant propositioning, but it didn’t stop a male co-worker.

“He said, ‘The bottom on you is unreal. I would love to see you in pink, pretty panties.’ A man of power was right there listening. He had nothing to say,” she said.

“I asked [ supervisor] for a cord to charge my cellphone. He showed me a picture of his penis. … I walked over to his supervisor and I said, ‘He just showed me a picture of his penis.’ [The supervisor] said, `Loosen up. Oh wow. You want to see mine, too?’ He told me if I reported it, I’d be on the outside looking in and he guaranteed that happened. I ended up living in my car with my disabled son.”

Tonya Exum told the City Council Finance Committee that if women at the Ford Motor Co. manufacturing plants complained about being harassed, their advancement opportunities were limited. “I want a workplace where I don’t have to work in fear,” she said at a hearing Tuesday at City Hall. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times

When Van go finally got her job back with back pay two years later, she returned to a stamping plant where women were still paralyzed by fear.

“They don’t want to go without. They don’t want production to go out of the building. They’re worried about their profit sharing. They don’t have a problem with being groped on. They don’t have a problem with watching the men jack off on the line. They just close their eyes. They’re there to get a paycheck,” Van said.

“I’m the big mouth person on the job. I’m the outcast. I continue to send emails. If I see something, I’m telling. I just don’t understand why do women have to endure where we are just like a statistic, or just an art piece, just a magnet for a man to have his way and be able to do whatever he want to do with us.”

Exum said she returned from a four-year tour of duty in Iraq and Saudi Arabia to a job at the Ford stamping plant she was “thrilled” to get.

“I was shocked when a man put his hand on my bottom and outraged that he did it again and again,” Exum said.

She complained, but “I learned that advancement opportunities for … a woman who complained were stunted. … I want a workplace where I don’t have to work in fear that I’m gonna be touched on the behind or ostracized because I complained about it,” she said.

“I also don’t want to see preferential treatment given to female co-workers who are complicit with offensive sexual behavior by male harassers.”

Miyoshi Morris said it was made clear to her that if she did not give in to demands for sexual favors, her career at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Chicago would be over. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times

Morris says she endured sexual harassment for many of her 18 years at the Ford assembly plant.

“Men in leadership positions on Ford’s management team and with the local UAW became comfortable enough with me that they sexually propositioned me under the threat that I would otherwise lose my career,” Morris said.

“They flexed their power, threatened my career and suggested if I wanted to continue to provide for my family, I had to engage in sexual acts or favors. I was told by a UAW leader that I needed to watch certain other female employees who were also subjected to his advances and see the good jobs she and others were provided with when they got with the program.”

Morris said the UAW “misadvised and turned its back” on her, forcing her to “lose the career” she sacrificed “so much of my life, so much of myself” to secure.

“When I asked the union’s plant chairman for assistance, he told me if I wanted his help, I have to get down on my knees,” Morris said.

Hackett did not attend Tuesday’s hearing. But in a letter addressed to Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th), Ford spokesman Tony Reinhart acknowledged that the giant automaker has been “grappling with a number of allegations of sexual harassment” at Ford’s Chicago plants.

Attorney Keith Hunt represents women suing Ford Motor Co. He testified before the City Council Finance Committee during a hearing on sexual harassment on Tuesday at City Hall. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times

“Ford is committed to a safe, harassment-free workplace for all employees … Ford does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination,” Reinhart wrote. “… Ford does not want harassers at its facilities and it will take immediate steps to address conduct that violates these policies.”

Keith Hunt, an attorney representing scores of female victims, argued that Ford’s words run contrary to its inaction on sexual harassment claims. Hunt also noted that Ford is one of the largest suppliers of police vehicles in Illinois and supplies all vehicles purchased by the Chicago Police Department.

“Do you think perhaps if Ford knew that it might not get any more contracts from the city of Chicago or other governmental agencies because of the working conditions that they promote, you think maybe they might do a little better job in addressing sexual harassment or in responding to complaints of discrimination?” he said.

The UAW also reiterated its policy of “zero tolerance when it comes to sexual harassment.”

Ald. Quinn’s brother, Kevin Quinn, lost his job as an aide to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan after being accused of sexually harassing a coworker.

Ford Explorers, right, roll off the assembly line in Chicago. | M. Spencer Green/Associated Press