The president of the United Auto Workers is taking a hard line on sexual harassment.
“Let me be very clear about this: the UAW has a policy of no tolerance — zero tolerance — when it comes to sexual harassment,” UAW president Dennis Williams said at a roundtable with the media Wednesday.
His forceful statement comes in the wake of a New York Times report on years of sexual harassment at two Ford Motor Co. plants in Chicago. The women in the story say their complaints were met with hostility by mostly male union leadership, and that management’s efforts to correct the problem proved ineffective.
The report comes amid a national reckoning for sexual harassers, toppling high-powered men like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose allegations sparked the #MeToo movement on social media. Time Magazine named these “Silence Breakers” — the women who came forward to name their harassers — its 2017 person of the year.
The accusations have taken down some of entertainment’s most-recognized names, from Matt Lauer to Louis C.K. It also rippled to government officials, with U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., the longest-serving current member of Congress, resigning earlier this month amid allegations that he sexually harassed staffers. But the women at Ford’s Chicago plants put a new face on this movement.
“All of the sudden when you see a workplace — an industrial workplace — with these kinds of issues, it becomes so vivid,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley. “It shows this is a social problem that needs to be addressed in society — in a plant.”
The union is in a tough spot when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment allegations because it represents both the accuser and the accused when a grievance is filed. Williams said he could not comment on the specific incidents.
“Working men and women have to understand that people ought to be able to go to the workplace without being harassed for any reason whatsoever,” Williams said.
Ford also says it does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination.
“We take those claims very seriously and investigate them thoroughly,” the Dearborn automaker said in an emailed statement. “We are taking the steps necessary to reinforce Ford’s commitment to a work environment free of harassment and discrimination.”
The union and Ford started tackling this issue in earnest as far back as 2011. The UAW and Ford have conducted anti-harassment training for roughly 30,000 members since then. New employee orientation also includes a four-hour anti-harassment training session.
The Chicago Assembly Plant and the Chicago Stamping Plant — the two facilities at the center of the New York Times report — were both under investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the summer, prompting Ford to pay $10.1 million to settle sexual and racial harassment charges.
At the time, the EEOC said it found personnel at the two Ford plants had harassed female and African-American employees.
The Chicago Assembly Plant’s UAW chairman, Alan “Coby” Millender, was suspended by Ford in 2015 after a lawsuit claimed he and other managers at the plant sexually harassed female employees. Millender later returned to work after the UAW filed a grievance.
Ford said it starting taking further actions at the Chicago plants more than two years ago, increasing the human resources staff by 30 percent to provide investigations support and oversight. This includes a staff member that oversees both plants and reports directly to personnel relations at the automaker’s headquarters in Dearborn. The automaker said it also ramped up anti-harassment, leadership and diversity training at the facilities.
“It’s important not to underestimate the severity of the problem and the damage that it does, but I think (sexual harassment) is an issue that Ford appears to be very committed to addressing, and the UAW is very committed to doing something now and going forward,” said Shaiken.
That doesn’t mean addressing the problem will be easy. Half of all sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints made to the EEOC about Ford in 2015 originated among the 5,700 employees — about a third of which are women — at the two Chicago plants, the New York Times reported.
“Here you’ve got a shared workplace and to have women treated in this way is wildly unacceptable and difficult to address,” Shaiken said. “It will require a lot on the shop floor, strict responses to complaints — and it’s going to involve a year from now and a decade from now being on top of it.”