There is a stubborn persistence of harassment in an industry once the exclusive preserve of men, where abuses can be especially brazen.

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CHICAGO — The jobs were the best they would ever have: collecting union wages while working at Ford, one of America’s most storied companies. But inside two Chicago plants, the women found menace.

Bosses and fellow laborers treated them as property or prey. Men crudely commented on their breasts and buttocks. They groped women, pressed against them, simulated sex acts or masturbated in front of them. Supervisors traded better assignments for sex and punished those who refused.

That was a quarter-century ago. Today, women at those plants say they have been subjected to many of the same abuses. And like those who complained before them, they say they were mocked, dismissed, threatened and ostracized. One described being called “snitch bitch,” while another was accused of “raping the company.” Many of the men who they say hounded them kept their jobs.

In August, the federal agency that combats workplace discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), reached a $10 million settlement with Ford for sexual and racial harassment at the two Chicago plants. A lawsuit is still making its way through the courts. This, too, happened before: In the 1990s, a string of lawsuits and an EEOC investigation resulted in a $22 million settlement and a commitment by Ford to crack down.

If you need help

News reports of sexual-assault allegations could be a trigger for victims and survivors of abuse. Here are some resources:
  • The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center offers a 24-hour resource line (888-998-6423). Additionally, KCSARC can help connect people with therapy, legal advocates and family services (kcsarc.org/gethelp).
  • UW Medicine’s Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress (depts.washington.edu/hcsats) offers resources, including counseling and medical care. For immediate help, call 206-744-1600.
  • For readers outside King County, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs lists 38 Washington state providers that offer free services. (wcsap.org/find-help)
  • RAINN: Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network provides a free, confidential hotline (800-656-4673) and online chat (hotline.rainn.org) with trained staff members.

For Sharon Dunn, who sued Ford back then, the new lawsuit was a fresh blow. “For all the good that was supposed to come out of what happened to us, it seems like Ford did nothing,” she said. “If I had that choice today, I wouldn’t say a damn word.”

Their story reveals the stubborn persistence of harassment in an industry once the exclusive preserve of men, where abuses can be especially brazen. For the Ford women, the harassment has endured even though they work for a multinational corporation with a professional human-resources operation, even though they are members of one of the country’s most powerful unions, even though a federal agency and then a federal judge sided with them, and even after independent monitors policed the factory floors for several years.

At a moment when so many people are demanding that sexual harassment no longer be tolerated, the story of the Ford plants shows the challenges of transforming a culture.

Workers describe a mix of sex, swagger, suspicion and racial resentment that makes the factories — the Chicago Assembly Plant and the Chicago Stamping Plant — particularly volatile.

The plants are self-enclosed worlds where employees pass on job referrals so relatives, classmates and longtime friends can work together. They share gossip and rumors, but they also keep secrets that entrench bad behavior. Many feel deep loyalty to Ford and their union, and resent the female accusers, fearing they may damage the company and jeopardize good paychecks and generous benefits. Some women are suspected of gaming a system where sex is a powerful lever.

Ford has worked to combat harassment at the plants, including recently stepping up disciplinary efforts and installing new leadership. But over the years the company did not act aggressively or consistently enough to root out the problem, according to interviews with more than 100 current and former employees and industry experts, and a review of legal documents. Ford delayed firing those accused of harassment, leaving workers to conclude that offenders would go unpunished. It let sexual-harassment training wane and, women charge, failed to stamp out retaliation.

The local union was divided, with a leadership that included alleged predators. And even the outsiders whom women turned to for help, including lawyers and the EEOC, left some of them feeling betrayed.

Ford officials say they view the harassment as episodic, not systemic, with an outbreak in the ’90s and another beginning in 2010 as new workers flooded in. They say they take all claims seriously and investigate them thoroughly.

Responding to the national outcry over sexual harassment, Ford’s chief executive, Jim Hackett, released a video to employees last week about appropriate behavior. “The test would be if you go to work, have experiences, and go home and tell your family about it and be proud of what went on,” he said. “We do not expect or accept any harassment in the workplaces here at Ford.”

On Thursday Hackett issued a letter apologizing for harassment incidents and telling harassers, “We don’t want you here, and we will move you out for engaging in behavior like this.”

Allegations of sexual misconduct

Since The New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in October, multiple men in Hollywood, politics and media have faced allegations ranging from sexual misconduct to rape. Here's a list of some of the people who have been accused.

How have sexual harassment and the #MeToo conversation affected you?

We want to hear your thoughts. Whether you work in tech, government, media, finance, the arts or another field, has sexual harassment or sexism affected you or the culture you work in? Are you becoming more cautious with co-workers or other people in your life?  

From the beginning, the women were targets. The first warning often came during orientation as new hires were paraded through the Chicago Assembly Plant. Shirley Thomas-Moore, a teacher who came to Ford to make better money, recalled the scene in the mid-’80s: A man would summon the attention of the factory floor. “Fresh meat!” the male workers hollered.

Some women say they know how to shut down unwanted advances while others say they have never encountered harassment. But James Jones, a union representative, said the problem should not be minimized, describing the attitude of many men at the factories: “You’re going to want to eat that porterhouse steak.”

The oldest continuously operating plant at a company that once revolutionized manufacturing with the Model T, the giant Chicago Assembly Plant now churns out Ford Explorers and Tauruses.

Women joined the workforce during World War II. But it was not until the 1970s that they held permanent jobs on the line. By then, Ford had built a second factory, the Chicago Stamping Plant, to supply parts. Today, the two plants employ about 5,700; just under a third are women.

A job at Ford was considered a golden ticket. When Suzette Wright, a 23-year-old single mother, was offered a spot at Chicago Assembly in 1993, she was “crazy insane elated.” In an instant, her hourly wage tripled, to about $15. With overtime, workers could earn $70,000 or more a year — an incentive to put up with a lot.

Like many of the female employees who eventually sued Ford, Wright is African American; those accused of harassment include black, white and Latino men.

As the affronts continued — lewd comments, repeated come-ons, men grabbing their crotches and moaning every time she bent over — Wright tried to ignore them. Veteran female employees warned that reporting the behavior brought only more trouble. The smallest infraction, routinely overlooked, suddenly merited a write-up.

But after a man Wright had trusted as a mentor made a crack about paying her $5 for oral sex, she asked her union representative for help. He began what she calls a “don’t-file-a-claim-against-Bill” campaign: Her co-worker would lose his job, his benefits, his pension, she was told. Rumors spread, questioning their relationship. Then a union official delivered the final insult: “Suzette, you’re a pretty woman — take it as a compliment.”

The same thing happened to Gwajuana Gray, who had followed her father into the assembly plant in 1991 and still works there. When she told her union steward that a manager had pressed his groin against her, he said she should be flattered. “I was like, well, where do you go?” she said.

The accumulating misconduct took a toll. Some women quit. Others were emotionally spent.

Those who complained said they faced retaliation from co-workers and bosses. An Army veteran who accused a man of groping her was physically blocked by his friends from doing her work, she said. Later she found her car tires slashed in the parking lot.

In explaining why harassment became so ingrained, Gray and others described sex as a preoccupation at the plants — variously a diversion, a currency and a weapon. There were plenty of consensual affairs and flirtations, employees agree. Some women used sex to win favors from the overwhelmingly male hierarchy. Bosses rewarded those who acquiesced to their advances by doling out cushier jobs or punished those who spurned them, requiring them to do more taxing, even dangerous work.

Miyoshi Morris gave in to a supervisor’s leverage and was filled with shame. She had been struggling to find day-care centers for her children that were open early enough for her to make her 6 a.m. shift. By her account, a manager in the paint department told her she was in trouble because of tardiness. He could help her, she recalled him saying, if she came to his house on a day off he arranged.

She agreed, and had sex with him.

The first place workers in trouble are supposed to turn for help is their union. But union representatives are caught between women’s pleas to stand with them and men’s pleas to save their jobs.

“They’re supposed to protect their members,” said George Galland, who acted as an independent monitor at the two Chicago plants for three years. “Unions are ill at ease helping management control sexual harassment. They tend to throw monkey wrenches where they can.”

The current lawsuit against Ford, which involves about 30 plaintiffs, accuses multiple local union representatives of harassing women or obstructing their complaints.

But women also single out some union representatives for praise, including one man who said he spent hours helping women fill out claims. “As a union, we’re supposed to be all one,” said the man, who insisted on anonymity because he feared losing his job. “It frustrates me to see that others do not conduct themselves like gentlemen.”