It was open season on women in Ford plants before laws were made, and enforced, and lawsuits forced companys to provide an unintimidating work atmosphere. Sexual harassment in Ford plants was some of the very worst, as a “60 Minutes” segment pointed out. I worked at Ford when we pulled out of the bad recession in 1975, and females became a larger part of the work force.
It was the first time since WWII that many, many women worked side by side with men on the manufacturing floor. There were no special rules for women, and no one really thought out the kinds of issues that would have to be dealt with. It was a good example of poor planning and implimentation that is so typical of the U.S. auto industry.
The term “sexual harassment” had not yet been invented, because prior to that time very few women worked in heavy manufacturing. We were just ending the era of the stay-at-home wife and mother. Since seniority plays such a large role because of the UAW contract, most women automatically were assigned to the highly undesirable midnight shift. Men on the midnight shift bid on day shift or afternoon shift jobs, as the economy expanded, and the new female employees went to midnights.
At first most men regarded the women with caution, not knowing how they were to act or talk. Did the normal social rules apply: low on the foul language, let women do the lighter work, etc. But after awhile those rules began to break down, and the men had a new game: see who can talk the dirtiest and watch the women’s reactions.
It became a contest. Men within earshot of women yelled profanities and made sure the women heard. Most women ignored the profanities and went about their jobs. But it became hard to ignore the condoms and pictures. Some condoms were blow up and tied to the machines women operated. One guy took a piece of twine 15 feet long, blew up condums and tied them to the string like Christmas decorations.
When condums no longer got the attention of the women, the dirty pictures and sex toys started. They would be taped to women’s machines, stapled to bulletin boards, put under the wiper blades of women’s cars in the parking lot. When a woman ran a machine close enough to male operator’s they would yell back and forth about oral sex, getting horny when the wife cut them off, etc.
One employee on the Case Line cut out a picture of a naked woman with her legs spread, from Hustler magazine, took it to a printer, had it made into a life size standup image, and, every night, stood it by his machine. He won the foul man contest.
I am old school, having been raised in a culture where you do not use foul language in mixed company, and you show respect to women. I was extremely disturbed, and took up this outrageous atmosphere with both the personnel manager and the UAW. How did it turn out? I was ridiculed and called “Captain America – fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way.”
Feeling that since the perpetrators were hourly employees and UAW members, I would first approach the UAW. The midnight UAW rep looked at me like I was crazy and said “What’s wrong, Bob, ain’tchu gittin none? ha,ha,ha.” Then he explained that my only concern, being management, was whether my hourly employees were following the rules. “And there ain’t no rules about how to talk when you got broads around. Don’t try to re-write the contract. If these women don’t like it here, let them go work some place else. Ford been makin’ cars fer damn near 75 years. Must be doing something right. Don’t be bothering me with shit like this. These women are all cock hounds or they wouldn”t work in no auto plant.”
My next move was to get an appointment with the personnel manager. He listened patiently to my complaint. Then he said “Yes, this sort of thing is happening in all of our plants. We are not sure how to deal with it. We have rules on safety glasses, on attendance, on quotas, etc. But we have no rules on how people are allowed to talk. It goes to free speech. Your concern is to run your department and make your numbers. Ford did not hire you to be a speech policeman. So just do your job and don’t worry about how the hourly employees talk to each other. After all, this is an auto plant, not a day care center.”
But management did not back off from exploiting the situation. During the first 30 days, an hourly employee was not covered by the UAW contract, and was not a member of the union. It was a probationary period, during which time the employees foreman could terminate the employee at any time, and the union would have no say. Many foreman solicited sex from female employees in exchange for giving them a thumbs up on the probationary period.
One of the foreman that I knew, who was, ironically, a deacon in his church, and known as the “Sneakin Deacon” held more than one “final interview” in a local motel on the 28th or 29th day of the woman’s probationary period. How did the atmosphere in the Ford plants affect female employees? I can only give my opinion, for what it is worth.
What about the women? Many were afraid to complain, because they needed the job. Besides that, they had no one to complain to. So they adapted. After awhile, many of the women became as foul as the men. They talked like drunken sailors on liberty in the red light district. In due time nothing that was said or done could get a response, because they had become as foul and hardened as the men. Ford helped bring an end to the era of respect and common decency in America.