During the Question and Answer session that was sandwiched between an Obama speech on jobs and an Obama speech on health care reform, a woman who grew up in a family where Ford put the food on the table asked about redress of sexist issues in the workplace.
President Obama’s response had to do with equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, which, I don’t believe was at the heart of the woman’s concerns. President Obama had already addressed gender equity in the workplace during his jobs speech, I’m sure the woman heard that message, and I don’t think she was asking to have the President repeat himself. The union contract would ensure equal pay for equal work, too, so I doubt that’s what the questioner was driving at.
I have a couple of things in common with the woman who posed the question, as I grew up in a UAW household where Ford put food on the table. Like her, there was a season when I was a Ford worker, too. I can’t know exactly what the woman’s concerns are, but I know what I observed at Ford, and perhaps some of it may apply to what that woman and her mother experienced.
If you’ve been a reader of my blog for some time, you may have read my post titled, “Smackdown on women in Sandusky.” To be sure, I doubt this woman’s family hails from Sandusky, so I can’t be sure that the same conditions apply, but let me just repeat just what kind of environment I was talking about in that post:
In Sandusky, Ohio, one doesn’t have to sift through nuance and subltety to find instances of sexism. No. In Sandusky, the Good Old Boys’ tastes in misogyny trend more toward sexism that’s blatant and overt. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t discern the nuances that JMZ expounded upon, because I was raised in an environment of stark contrasts.
When I make mention of a smackdown on women in Sandusky in the title of this blog entry, I’m not talking about a one-time event. The “S” in “Smackdown” in the title is capitalized only because it is the first word in the title, not because it’s a proper noun signifying a singular event. No . . . smackdown of women by the Good Old Boys happens in Sandusky every day of every year. It is commonplace. So, it is “smackdown” with a lower-case “s” that I’m writing about here. Though I hope someday to illustrate the point with my own Sandusky workplace observations, this blog entry will be lengthy enough just to tell the tale of the woman who was once Sandusky’s police chief, Kim Nuesse.
I’ve worked at many, many places for many, many employers at many, many jobs during my adult life. How many? I think I counted 30 different jobs. It seems every little dip in the economy affects me and sends me scrambling to latch on to something else. But of all those workplaces, I believe the most rampant, blatant, overt sexism I ever witnessed was at Ford.
In other workplaces, people get fired for sexual harassment, and they draw a very clear line. You can get fired, maybe, at Ford for sexual harassment, and no clear line was drawn. Men, even married men, chase skirts and sometimes impregnate female co-workers, sometimes even married ones. Those men on the most solid footing with union officials are the ones most likely to not fear any consequences.
In the woman’s question to Obama about what to do about workplace sexism, she said that attorneys wouldn’t take up the matter. This, to me, is a clue that the union is complicit. The union is supposed to represent the worker’s interests in relation to working conditions at Ford. Her first attempt to redress of wrongs would be through negotiations with her union reps. That she’s consulted attorneys means that she’s not getting results through the union. If, for example, she were to lodge a complaint about sexual harassment, and a man who was prominent in the union was involved, the union would most likely neglect to follow through. Lawyers would probably say that if the woman wants to sue Ford, she’d also have to sue the union as well, because both have a responsibility, and it has to be proven, with evidence, that both have failed in their respective responsibilities in order to make a case in court. If you lodge a complaint, and the union rep logs the complaint, and documents that the matter was brought before management, how do you prove that they didn’t do their job to redress the wrong? The union might say, “We’re still working on it. Management is dragging their feet.” So proof can be hard to come by, especially if there have been backroom deals between the union and management where favors are owed for covering each others’ hind ends.
But sexual harassment is just the tip of the iceberg. There are other complaints that I’ve also seen women’s job opportunities curtailed by concerted efforts by male management and male union officials. Certain departments within a factory may be clubhouses of “boys only–no girls allowed.” The hiring of women in Ford factories was just a trickle before the late 70’s. This means that it’s likely that a bunch of men have more seniority than even the most senior woman in the factory. If an opening occurs in a “boys only” department, and a woman bids on it, there may be a concerted effort to recruit a man with more seniority than that woman to sign the bid sheet. If a man with more seniority can’t be found, that doesn’t mean gender integration is inevitable, because all of a sudden, management might say “Oops, that was a mistake to put a bid sheet out. There really isn’t an opening in that department. The department is fully staffed.” (Ooh, goody, overtime is available in the short run). So that bid sheet was useless. A number of days may then be allowed to elapse so that the bid rights of those that signed that particular bid sheet have expired, and, voila, an opening has mysteriously appeared in that department again, and the bidding restarts back at square one. Since all of this is according to contract, there’s really no way for attorneys to tackle such a dilemma, even though sexist discrimination may have been a motive for all that maneuvering. For the men who have nothing to fear from the union or management, outright intimidation may be used to discourage women from bidding into certain departments.
Among the job opportunities in a Ford factory where men exhibit the most territorial behavior are the skilled trades. Skilled trades require more training. Skilled trades have a higher degree of risk to a person’s safety. Skilled trades may require more muscle to accomplish assigned tasks. Mostly, though, skilled trades pay better that production work. The better pay and the opportunity to use one’s mind and do work that’s less routine are factors that prompt workers to gravitate toward skilled trades opportunities.
Openings in skilled trades are filled mostly in two ways: 1) Hire someone that’s already a journeyman. 2) Train someone through an apprenticeship until they become a journeyman.
The easiest way to play keep away is to hire someone that’s already a journeyman, because management and the union have the best opportunity to pick and choose without strings attached. I’ve known instances of men hired off the street who weren’t really journeyman, but connections with union heads and management permitted a farce to be perpetrated where the applicants credentials were fudged. “Fudged” is putting it mildly. Because they really weren’t qualified, they really aren’t all that productive, (tasks take longer–ooh! opportunity for overtime!), but at least gender integration was averted.
For apprenticeship programs, there are quite a few requirements that the union and management must meet in selecting apprentices, so it’s a little harder to game the system, but there are still loopholes for gaming it. It used to be that the highest scores on an aptitude test were the ones accepted into the apprenticeship program. At first, it was mostly men who worked in the factory, so it would mostly be men who took the test, and it would mostly be men who got the highest scores. As more women joined the factory workforce, the number of women taking the test started to climb, and the likelihood of a woman getting a high score was increasing. Often, outright intimidation is used to suppress the number of women taking the test. Once the tests have been scored, and the candidates for apprenticeship are ranked, apprentices are added as openings become available. If the top female apprenticeship candidate was ranked 10th on the list, you might see just four or five apprenticeship opportunities open up before eligibility expires and the test has to be administered again. Or maybe just six or seven apprentices added. Or maybe just eight or nine. Ten or eleven? Nah! Not likely this time around, because a woman ranked 10th. The dearth of females in the skilled trades does not go unnoticed, however, so it was surmised that perhaps ranking apprenticeship candidates based on test scores, alone, was unfair to women and minorities. Instead of taking the highest scores, why not take all those with passing scores, and then use seniority to rank the candidates? That way, as long as a woman or minority can meet the MINIMUM requirements, as evidenced by a passing score, they can get a crack at a skilled trades job. It should be fairly easy to guess how the new ranking method allowed more gaming of the system than the old: It’s based on seniority! Even the most senior women have less seniority than boatloads of men! The new ranking system provided an escape hatch when the old ranking system, based on high scores, was leading to the inevitability of gender integration in the skilled trades.
But even if a female apprentice is added, her progress in the skilled trades may still be fraught with challenges. Workers can be dropped from apprenticeships if progress is documented to be unsatisfactory. Without proper vigilance by someone willing to blow the whistle, documentation of unsatisfactory progress can be manufactured. Mentors and department heads can try to sabotage her progress during her rotation through the various departments of the plant. Intimidation is often resorted to in order to pressure the female apprentice to drop out of the apprenticeship program. Even if she completes the apprenticeship and becomes a journeyman, when she bids to a department that happens to be a clubhouse of the good old boys, she can find herself subjected to the same shenanigans that female production workers can experience when bidding.
Only the intimidation, the false documentation, and the harassment are in violation of the contract. The rest of the obstacles that women may face are part and parcel of the contract, and a lawyer wouldn’t know where to begin to fight it.
I don’t know what circumstances that woman or her mother faced at Ford because she couldn’t really elaborate within the town hall format, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with what I’ve mentioned in this blog post.