Ford Motor Company Under Fire For Workplace Abuse

Mitsubishi Settles Workers' Disputes Under Pressure from NOW



by Loretta A. Kane,
Public Relations Director

 
Renee Ferguson (right) accepts a Courage in Media Reporting award at a Chicago NOW ceremony.  Ferguson is the investigative reporter with  the NBC affiliate in Chicago who broke the story about harassment at Ford Motor Company.  To her left is Jeanette Jones , one of the lead plaintiffs in the original suit against Ford which was settled last fall.  Photo courtesy of Lorna Brett.

As Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing settles its sex discrimination suits, women at the Ford Motor Company's plants in Chicago and other communities are stepping forward to file sexual harassment complaints against the oldest U.S. automobile manufacturer.
 
"The complaints in the Ford case are so similar to those against Mitsubishi, it increases our concern that the problem is industry-wide," said NOW President Patricia Ireland.
 
Women at Ford plants have complained that a number of male supervisors and coworkers are sexual predators who prey upon them. The allegations range from verbal harassment, including vulgar language and inappropriate demands for sex, to quid pro quo harassment where women claim they were forced to have sexual relations to keep their jobs. As in the Mitsubishi case, damning images of Ford supervisors and workers engaging in sexually suggestive and explicit acts at a party were offered as evidence of the locker-room atmosphere.
 
Following the initial reports by women workers at Ford's Chicago manufacturing plants, Chicago NOW launched a local campaign to pressure Ford to take action. In a report on NBC's "Dateline" about the pervasive harassment, Chicago NOW President Lorna Brett said, "It's like the Wild, Wild West in these plants. There are no rules. It's whatever you want-just take it."
 
NOW's Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign is poised to take action against Ford Motor Company. "We are working closely with Chicago NOW to determine our national strategy to address the latest allegations against an auto industry giant," Ireland said.

"Merchants of Shame" Cases Settled

The Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign, which is dedicated to eliminating discrimination on the job, already has had a tremendous impact in two landmark class-action lawsuits involving securities firm Smith Barney and auto-maker Mitsubishi. Both cases ended in unprecedented settlements for the named plaintiffs as well as the women members of the class.
 
The EEOC estimates that some 350 current and former employees of Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing plant in Normal, Ill., will receive payments of up to $300,000-the maximum allowed under a federal cap on damages for sex discrimination. (NOW continues to urge the removal of this unfair cap that limits women s compensation for the harm they have suffered.)  Coupled with last year's $9.5 million settlement of a private lawsuit filed against the company by 27 women, sexual harassment will have cost the company millions of dollars in litigation costs-not to mention the uncounted toll on productivity due to the hostile work environment.
 
In the Smith Barney case, the first class-action sex discrimination suit filed against a Wall Street firm, United States District Judge Constance Baker Motley approved a settlement which, over the next two years, will give an estimated 23,000 women access to an alternative dispute resolution process with an unlimited fund to compensate them for losses and damages, including punitive damages.  Although the women are not entitled to a jury trial, Judge Motley found that the settlement was fair.  The women's compensation is not limited by the $300,000 cap, and the process covers complaints against the firm all the way back to May 1993, many of which would have been thrown out of federal court because of the statute of limitations. Any class member has the right to opt-out of the alternative process and proceed with her own claim.

Progress on Wall Street

Succumbing to NOW's public pressure campaign and to the private litigation against it, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced its plan to remove the mandatory arbitration requirement it imposes on securities industry workers as a condition of employment. The policy change will take effect on Jan. 1, 1999.
 
But, as NOW Action Vice President Elizabeth Toledo reminded a congressional committee, individual brokerage houses can still maintain the requirement for their own employees.
 
"Senators, it is incumbent upon you to reaffirm your commitment to the civil rights laws of this country . . .I urge you to right the wrongs suffered by so many women and people of color by ending mandatory arbitration -- first in the securities industry -- and ultimately in every industry throughout the country," Toledo told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
 
In making the announcement, SEC Chair Arthur Levitt urged the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and other self-policing bodies of the industry to follow suit. Subsequently, the NYSE adopted a similar measure when its board met in September.
 
"While we should celebrate these Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign victories, the battles against mandatory arbitration and sexual harassment are far from over. We must make it our business to convince employers that forced arbitration will be bad for their business," Ireland concluded.


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