When Will the Auto Industry Succumb to the #MeToo Revolution?

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Over the past few months, the #MeToo revolution has brought down men in Hollywood, in media, and in the food world who have harassed or violated women. Other even more male-dominated industries have been slower to respond to this watershed moment, including the auto industry — where violating women has long been tolerated and part of the culture.

The New York Times Magazine has a multi-media expose of the ongoing sexual harassment and misconduct toward women at the Ford Motor Company. Despite numerous lawsuits filed and settled in the 1990s, a threatening culture has persisted and led to a new round of litigations. Reporters Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn investigate whether that culture can survive the #MeToo revolution. What will it take to bring down male auto workers, managers and union leaders?

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 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.

It’s not easy for women in any industry to stand up and speak out. There are consequences for doing so, not to mention rewards for keeping quiet, and complying with demands for sex in exchange for better treatment. This is even truer in auto factories, where sexual harassment and misconduct are deeply ingrained in the culture.

In the last five years, one woman said a male co-worker bit her on the buttocks. A supervisor told a female subordinate, “I want to screw you so bad,” she recalled. A laborer described in pornographic detail what he wanted to do to another woman, then exposed himself to her, she said; later, he pushed her into an empty room and turned off the lights before she fled.

Those who complained said they faced retaliation from co-workers and bosses. Some women were frightened after harassers warned them to watch their backs. 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.

Ford officials say that they have a strict policy against retaliation, and that supervisors who exact retribution will be disciplined. But “when you speak up,” Ms. Gray said, “you’re like mud in the plant.”

In explaining why harassment became so ingrained, she 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.

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