Equal Opportunity Employment Commission sues Ford for pregnancy discrimination

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing Detroit-based automaker Ford Motor Company for pregnancy discrimination, stemming from its alleged refusal to hire a woman after she disclosed that she was pregnant, according to a press release on the EEOC’s website. The lawsuit was filed in the District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division on Monday.

“This alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to discriminate against applicants or employees because of their sex, including pregnancy,” the EEOC press release said.

According to the lawsuit, Edwina Smith was qualified to work at the Ford Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights, Illinois and was given a conditional offer of hire by Ford in June 2019 “subject to passing a physical, drug test and background check.” A Ford physician administered a pre-employment physical in August 2019, during which she disclosed that she was pregnant, and the physician still cleared her for hire. Ford never scheduled her for her first day of work in spite of its own physician’s approval, the lawsuit alleges.

Smith pursued Ford for weeks to get answers to when she could begin working at the stamping plant, according to the lawsuit, but was continually given the run-around until October when the company answered that Ford was no longer hiring. The lawsuit also alleges that other workers were hired and sent for orientation during the same time period, demonstrating that Smith was discriminated against based on her disclosure of pregnancy.

The press release does not name the parties involved with Ford with whom she was in contact, but it is clear that neither the company nor the United Auto Workers union (UAW), which supposedly represents workers at the plant, did anything to ensure that she was given an equal opportunity for employment.

If the allegations of the lawsuit are proven, it will show that Ford is in violation of the 1978 US Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which forbids discrimination based on pregnancy for any aspect of an individual’s employment, including hiring, pay, termination, job assignments and benefits.

The US has also signed, but never ratified, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1980. The Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and prohibits dismissal on the grounds of maternity or pregnancy and ensures the right to maternity leave or comparable social benefits.

This is not the first sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Ford by workers. In 1997, 14 women who worked at Ford in the US filed a class action lawsuit against the company for sexual harassment. In November 2014, more than 30 workers, all who were women, filed another class action lawsuit against Ford, alleging routine sexual and racial harassment on the job by both management and United Auto Workers union officials at the Ford Chicago Assembly and Stamping plants. The allegations in the 2014 suit ranged from suggestive comments and unwanted touching to attempted rape.

In both aforementioned lawsuits, the EEOC has played a particular role in making sure that Ford did not face serious repercussions. The EEOC created a “Conciliation Agreement” with Ford in response to the 1997 lawsuit, which required “workplace monitoring” for three years. The essentially toothless agreement did nothing to stop the rampant abuse against workers at Ford plants across the US, as workers soon found out in the years that followed.

In 2017, Ford settled harassment claims brought by workers with the EEOC for $10.1 million, a drop in the bucket compared to its annual profits. Ford tried to cite the EEOC case settlement in an attempt to brush off the 2014 lawsuit, which was separate from the 2017 EEOC case. Keith Hunt, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the 2014 lawsuit, referred to the EEOC settlement as an attempt by Ford to “circumvent the class-action process.”

Workers of all genders and races face harassment by company managers and union officials alike, according to workers at the Ford Chicago Assembly plant who spoke to the World Socialist Web SiteAutoworker Newsletter about the 2014 allegations.

“It’s more than sexual, because there’s a lot of men here that have been harassed. Their jobs have been manipulated, their overtime has been manipulated and threats made against them,” one worker recounted in 2015.

The worker continued, “They’re manipulating people, period. If they can’t get what they want from you, they totally manipulate you. If it’s sex they want, and you’re not giving it, they’re going to manipulate your job. You’re not going to get any overtime, you’re going to get the hard job.”

The conditions that workers are faced with today are similar to, and in some ways are worse, than those that autoworkers in the 1930s faced. Before rank-and-file workers carried out the historic sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan, which led to the formation of the United Auto Workers, the exploitation of women workers by management ran rampant. In one department of an AC Spark Plug plant, all of the women workers had to go to the hospital to be treated for a sexually transmitted disease that was traced to one foreman. Men who worked at these plants suffered as well, and were threatened with their jobs if they tried to individually stand up for the women that managers exploited.

Workers at both Ford Chicago Stamping and Ford Chicago Assembly plants have spoken to the WSWS about the ways that management and the union foster a hostile working environment to maintain control over the workers and suppress any organized opposition by the workers against the sweatshop conditions in the factories. Workers are routinely written up and threatened with their jobs for minor attendance infractions, given little to no protection from safety hazards (including the spread of the deadly COVID-19 infection) and targeted for retaliation when they speak out against their conditions.

What the lawsuit shows is not just the abuses of management, but that they are allowed to run rampant by the UAW. The UAW has completely turned its back on its history as a workers’ organization built to protect workers from exploitation at the hands of management. It now either ignores harassment that goes on before its very eyes, or directly engages in it along with management, and the two are nearly indistinguishable from one another in their treatment of workers.