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Ford tackled a factory harassment culture before. Why is it still happening?

Ford has dealt with the legal ramifications of racial and sexual harassment at two auto factories in the past. A new New York Times investigation chronicles how a culture of harassment has returned, raising questions about the intractable conditions blue-collar workers may face. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Susan Chira of The New York Times.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, a disturbing investigation about a culture of harassment at a pair of Ford auto factories.

    Ford's CEO made a public apology yesterday for the alleged misconduct. The story raises questions about what is happening to some blue-collar workers.

    Hari Sreenivasan explores why it is proving difficult to change the underlying culture.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ford already had dealt with a federal investigation, lawsuits, settlements, and changes at two Chicago factories to deal with racial and sexual harassment going back decades.

    This week, The New York Times chronicled how abusive patterns with female workers had returned to these plants. The reporting team spoke with dozens of women about what they had faced recently and in the past, including Suzette Wright. She first worked at one of the plants in 1993, and eventually quit.

  • Suzette Wright:

    Every time I would have a new instance of something sexual happen, because I had already seen the ramifications of saying anything, I would stay in there and take it. And every time, each time that I was taking it again and again, it just felt like more of me diminishing, just getting smaller.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Susan Chira is one of the two reporters who worked on this investigation for The Times.

    She joins me now.

    You worked with Catrin Einhorn on this, your partner from Chicago and in New York.

    What was the culture that the two of you documented?

  • Susan Chira:

    When we talked to many, many workers, they told us that men would grope them, make lewd sexual remarks about their bodies, and, if they complained, they'd face ostracism, threats, and a lot of hostility both from their co-workers, who were worried that the plants might close, and from their bosses.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We have an example of that kind of fear.

    Shirley Thomas-Moore had this to say.

  • Shirley Thomas-Moore:

    It's hard when, every day, you come in, and if you say something, and something is done, it gets worse.

    So that's why a lot of women do not complain. They don't say anything. There was one particular situation with this young lady. She finally got enough guts to go up there and report it, but before she could get down to the line, it was already known what she went upstairs for.

    So who's telling it? She was taken off that job and put on a harder job.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In response to your reporting, the executives at Ford put out this statement, or part of a larger statement.

    "I'm sorry for any instance where a colleague was subjected to harassment or discriminatory conduct. And there's absolutely no room for harassment at Ford Motor Company. We don't want you here, and we'll move you out from engaging in any behavior like this. Our promise is, there will be no retaliation against anyone who speaks up. And no one is above the rules, no matter where they are the hierarchy."

    Were these incidents that you documented with these women, are they anomalies, are they episodic, or is it systematic?

  • Susan Chira:

    I think that depends on what you talk to.

    Ford thinks of them as episodic. Some of the workers would argue they're systematic.

    We certainly know that there was a huge ongoing pattern of abuses. There was a kind of a lull in the early 2000s, after the first set of lawsuits and after independent monitors moved in. And then, as economic pressures mounted, the auto industry was in bankruptcy, and then recovered, and a whole new surge of hiring came in, it certainly roared back. Some workers argue that it never left.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This is not a small start-up company. This is Ford, has a huge infrastructure, has a human resources department. The employees have a union.

    Why was this culture tolerated for so long?

  • Susan Chira:

    I think there are many answers.

    The union turns out to be in the eyes of many workers part of the problem, instead of the solution. The union has a hard task. They represent the men who are accused, as well as the women who accuse the men. But at the same time, women said many, not all, union officials sometimes harassed them or discouraged them from complaining.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As you mentioned, this is not Ford's first instance of this. Considering that they have had this problem before, what happens now?

  • Susan Chira:

    Well, I think there are two things.

    I think the other point is that Ford could have moved much more aggressively and much more consistently. But now they have this new settlement and monitors are going to move in again and oversee compliance, and Ford has been putting measures in place. So, I think the great test is going to be, can a culture of sexual harassment really be controlled for a permanent time?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What's been the response of the women that were in print with their photos, with audio that clearly the boss read about? What have they said about you and your reporting now?

  • Susan Chira:

    I think that they welcome attention, because they feel that attention will help them get solutions.

    Some of them wanted us to go further and name a lot more people. And, you know, we obviously had to apply our journalistic standards to what we felt comfortable including. But I think that they are — they welcomed the apology, but they want to see action.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    These are not women that normally get the type of attention the entire MeToo movement has shed a light on.

  • Susan Chira:

    That's right.

    One of the women said to us that, as she saw Harvey Weinstein and the whole MeToo movement, she wanted to start a Twitter campaign called #whataboutus.

    So I think these women do feel that their plight has been ignored, hasn't been a part of the conversation. It was absolutely our motivation to try to understand as reporters what women in blue-collar or service industries away from the limelight were enduring.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there a feeling of why they felt empowered to speak now?

  • Susan Chira:

    Well, I think the women involved have been speaking out in the last several years, not just this minute.

    The complaints have been going on for several years. I do think that this is a moment where I think some women are hoping that change will be more permanent.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Susan Chira of The New York Times, thanks so much.

  • Susan Chira:

    Thanks for having me.

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