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Once again, Ford is paying victims of sexual, racial harassment at its Chicago plants

screen grab Ford Motor Company
Assembly line at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant

For the second time in 20 years, Ford Motor Company has settled an investigation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over complaints of sexual and racial harassment at its Chicago Stamping and Chicago Assembly plants.

The EEOC says Ford also retaliated against workers who reported the harassment.

Ford has agreed to pay up to $10.1 million to victims, as well as institute training for workers.

The allegations are virtually the same as those Ford settled in 1999 with the EEOC.  Workers complained of a culture of sexual and racial harassment, ranging from being exposed to pornographic images to sexual and physical assault and demands for sex in return for advancement at the plants.

The attorney who represents the first round of victims as well as the second says the current settlement is inadequate.

"It's a slap on the hand," says Keith Hunt.  "They [the EEOC] don't even file a lawsuit.  They just cut a backroom deal. They don't tell anybody about it, and they try and put the whole thing under the rug."

Hunt says he filed a lawsuit to intervene in the last EEOC settlement, and he's doing the same here.  He says even having monitors supervise the 1999 settlement didn't do enough.

"I think it [the sexual harassment] came back because as soon as the monitors left, so did any indication from Ford that they were serious about this issue," says Hunt.

Hunt says another big problem at the plants is the UAW represents both the victims and perpetrators of the harassment, a clear conflict of interest.

Even in cases where the alleged harasser is white collar and not represented by the UAW, he says, Ford would not allow the UAW to interview the salaried individual, so the union's internal investigations went nowhere.

He says another big issue is the dearth of female supervisors and managers at the plant.

A Ford spokeswoman sent this statement about the settlement:

Ford chose to voluntarily resolve this issue without any admission of liability with the EEOC to avoid an extended dispute. Ford does not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind; we are fully committed to a zero-tolerance, harassment-free work environment at all facilities and to ensuring that Ford’s work environment is consistent with our policies in that regard. Ford conducted a thorough investigation and took appropriate action, including disciplinary action up to and including dismissal for individuals who violated the company’s anti-harassment policy.

Julianne Bowman is District Director of the Chicago District of the EEOC.  She says the agency attempted to make some changes to the new settlement to ensure the effects are longer-lasting than the first.

For one thing, she says, the settlement calls for five years of monitoring.

"That's to provide enough time for a real culture shift," she says, "to give them [Ford] a chance to make some changes, and us to monitor over time to make sure the changes we're looking for have really occurred."

She says Ford has also agreed to change the requirements of performance plans for managers, to include assessing how they handle diversity and equal employment opportunity issues.

Bowman notes a culture of sexual harassment is a difficult nut to crack.

"Just traditional training -- 'this is harassment, don't do it' -- may not be enough," she says. "It's important to stress civility and mutual respect to get to the core of the problem."

Bowman says the EEOC settled rather than sued because the agency feels that getting a company to the table without litigation is a plus and "good for everybody."

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.