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Ford Workers Who Sued Over Sexual Harassment Face Setback

A federal judge in Chicago ruled this week that a lawsuit brought by female Ford employees over sexual misconduct at two Chicago plants cannot proceed as a class-action suit.

The ruling was a setback for the plaintiffs, who said they had endured groping, vulgarities and sexual violence despite the company’s efforts to change a longstanding culture of harassment.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014 by more than 30 women, accuses the company of not doing enough to ensure a safe and equitable work environment. It sought to include all women who worked at Ford’s assembly or stamping plants in Chicago from 2012 to the present.

But Judge Robert M. Dow Jr., of the Northern District of Illinois, ruled that the women’s experiences were too disparate to be considered as a single class. The plaintiffs can still sue as individuals.

The culture of harassment at Ford was described in a 2017 investigation by The New York Times that included detailed accounts from workers in the two plants dating back to the 1990s. It concluded that the company’s efforts to stamp out sexual misconduct had fallen short.

The accounts of the working conditions at the Ford plants threw into stark relief how little attention blue-collar workers had received as the #MeToo movement gained steam that year, following revelations of harassment by celebrities and white-collar professional women. A former worker at one of the Ford plants proposed a new hashtag: #WhatAboutUs.

The company’s president and chief executive, Jim Hackett, apologized for any harassment that had occurred in an open letter days after the article was published. In a statement on Friday, Ford said that it had a “comprehensive approach” in place to prevent and address sexual harassment and discrimination.

“While we are pleased with the judge’s decision,” the statement said, “we will continue to reinforce the importance of respectful, harassment-free environments at all of our facilities, including our Chicago plants.”

The company said that it had increased its human resources staff by 30 percent and put a number of new policies in place, including additional training and rules that employees disclose personal relationships.

ImageCreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Lawyers for the women did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The company first faced sustained criticism about sexual harassment at the two plants in the 1990s, when dozens of women sued or filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a settlement with that agency in 2000, Ford agreed to pay $22 million, including $9 million in damages to at least 100 women. As part of the deal, the company denied liability but pledged to make changes overseen by outside monitors.

Conditions seemed to improve for a time, but complaints about sexual harassment surged once again around 2011. By then, the company was recovering from the Great Recession, and new hires had flooded into factories.

By August 2017, the E.E.O.C. and Ford had reached another settlement, for $10 million, over sexual and racial harassment at the two Chicago plants. On Friday, a spokeswoman for the company said that 835 workers had received checks as part of the settlement. The full terms were confidential, but the deal required more improvements at the company, including greater accountability for managers. Monitors will oversee the plants for five years.

The Ford plants, which offered good pay and benefits at a time when the nation’s manufacturing base was eroding, had once been the exclusive preserve of men. Some of the harassment was fueled by resentment at the presence of women on the factory floor.

Many of the female employees who sued are African-American, and accused black, white and Latino men of misconduct. Some of the women said they also endured racial slurs, and some who complained faced retaliation.

Their union, the United Auto Workers, offered limited recourse. The 2014 lawsuit accuses union representatives of harassment and of trying to stop women from filing complaints.

Catrin Einhorn contributed reporting, and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

Read the Times investigation How Tough Is It to Change a Culture of Harassment? Ask Women at FordDecades after the company tried to tackle sexual misconduct at two Chicago plants, continued abuse raises questions about the possibility of change.Dec. 19, 2017


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