Three UAW leaders created sexually hostile environment, lawsuit alleges

Robert Snell Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — A high-ranking female officer with the United Auto Workers accused three union leaders of sexual harassment, including grabbing, kissing and propositioning her in recent years, according to a federal lawsuit Wednesday.

UAW international service representative Patricia Morris-Gibson accused the union leaders of creating a hostile work environment, failing to take corrective action and cutting her salary by 50% last month after she raised concerns, according to the lawsuit filed against the union and several senior officers, including newly appointed Vice President Gerald Kariem.

Gerald Kariem

Kariem is the latest member of the UAW's governing board accused of harassment since leaders moved to oust regional Director Richard Rankin in March following an investigation.

The lawsuit coincides with an ongoing federal corruption investigation involving the UAW that has led to the convictions of 13 people and exposed the union to possible takeover by the federal government. Former UAW President Gary Jones is expected to plead guilty next week to racketeering and embezzlement charges.

Morris-Gibson, 56, lives in Taylor and works as an international service representative, a $127,790 job that includes travel and work far removed from the assembly line.

"Throughout her employment with the UAW, plaintiff was subjected to discrimination and sexual harassment including but not limited to unwelcome sexual advances, comments, and offensive conduct of a sexual nature," Morris-Gibson's lawyers, Avery Williams and Gerald Evelyn, wrote in the lawsuit.

The UAW has not yet been served with the lawsuit and, typically, does not comment on litigation, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg wrote in an email.

The lawsuit includes allegations involving Morris-Gibson's supervisor, Assistant Director Miguel Foster, during a Coalition of Black Trade Unionists convention in Atlanta, Ga., "asked plaintiff to sleep with him," the lawsuit alleged. 

At the time, Foster was director of the UAW's Civil and Humans Rights department, according to the lawsuit.

Foster joined Morris-Gibson's division in 2018 and "almost immediately" started harassing her, according to the lawsuit.

"Foster made comments about bending plaintiff over her desk" and alluded to having sex with her, according to the lawsuit.

In October 2018 at the union's Blue Cross Blue Shield division, Foster "shockingly kissed plaintiff on the side of her mouth without her consent or permission," the lawsuit alleged.

Foster could not be reached for comment. 

The alleged kissing incident was reported to a department director, according to the lawsuit. 

"Plaintiff’s complaints have always been treated as mere puffery and exaggeration by defendants, who devoted their energy to 'protecting Foster,'" the lawsuit alleged.

In other instances, the UAW failed to take corrective action after being alerted to sexual harassment involving more senior labor leaders, according to the lawsuit.

Morris-Gibson says she suffered numerous other instances of harassment by other UAW officials, including Kariem, now a vice president of the UAW and director of the Ford department.

Jimmy Settles

Kariem, who until earlier this year served as a regional director, allegedly whispered in her ear asking for her to sleep with him during a conference in Washington, D.C. When Morris replied that she was married, he laughed and said that he would not tell, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit does not list the year of the conference.

During a bargaining conference in March 2019 at the TCF Center, Kariem allegedly approached Morris-Gibson and used an expletive to refer to her appearance.

Kariem did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit includes allegations involving former UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles, who is not named as a defendant. Settles was the union's top negotiator with Ford until retiring in 2018 and being appointed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to a $155,000 job as head of the city's Department of Neighborhoods.

During one meeting, Settles made a comment to now-President Rory Gamble about plaintiff’s breasts, the lawsuit alleged.

"Plaintiff was embarrassed by Settles’ comment and Gamble told Settles to 'leave her alone,'" according to the lawsuit.

Settles also called Morris-Gibson to meet former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick so he could "see a pretty face" to help him feel better before he went to prison, according to the lawsuit.

Settles did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday. His lawyer, Steve Fishman, who represents him in connection with a separate federal corruption investigation, declined comment.

Despite UAW leaders witnessing and having knowledge of the harassment, nothing was done to address it, according to the lawsuit. The UAW did not investigate her sexual harassment allegations until April 2019, after Morris-Gibson requested her personnel file, six months after the UAW director was informed of the harassment, according to the lawsuit.​

"The atmosphere of harassment and hostile work environment for women, particularly women of color, was pervasive," Williams and Evelyn wrote.

Morris-Gibson is requesting money for damages in excess of $75,000, an injunction prohibiting any further acts of discrimination, attorney fees and costs.

The lawsuit comes after the UAW’s governing International Executive Board in March moved to remove regional director Rankin from the union. A third-party investigator had “substantiated allegation of workplace harassment,” the union said in a statement at the time.

The union's constitution provides 15 days for an accused official to prepare a defense, but a trial before a 12-member jury has been delayed due to gathering limitations amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Rothenberg said.

Rankin has been suspended of his duties, though he has said in a previous statement from his lawyers he intends to fight the charges.