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Focus on sexual harassment: Union's conflicted 'protection'

| Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, 9:00 p.m.

What happens when a female union member in Chicago reports sexual harassment in the workplace? If she's a member of the United Auto Workers, nothing.

Well, that's not completely accurate.

She'll get rebuked for tattling on a union brother, bullied into tolerating the disgusting as normal, belittled for being sickened by graphic images and demeaning comments, brainwashed into believing an attack isn't harassment if it only happened once. And she'll realize her cries to her union for protection are meaningless because of the inherent conflict of interest when a union tries to represent both victim and attacker. That's my experience as an autoworker, UAW member and victim of sexual harassment.

I've worked at Ford's stamping plant in Chicago Heights for five years. I began as a production team member on the assembly side and was literally harassed by lewd comments from Day One. Smacks on the bottom were common. I was frequently groped by male colleagues, to the point that it prevented me from doing my job. Such harassment was not an isolated experience; it was pervasive, afflicting every corner of the plant.

I called the harassment hotline several times, which yielded nothing. While media outlets have recently exposed Ford's role in perpetuating a dangerous workplace culture, and rightly so, the UAW also played an important role by standing between me and the accountability I sought. I often complained to the UAW, which was supposed to represent my interests, only to hear crickets. I am now a plaintiff with about 30 other employees in a lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. that includes these allegations.

In my experience, the worst perpetrator was a union representative. And it wasn't just sexual harassment: As I allege in the lawsuit, I've been run off the road by this man, he's slashed my tires, even come to my house to bother me. (I had to have my teenage son chase him away.) Little did I know the UAW would protect him at all costs. The union has a conflict of interest. Because the perpetrator was also a union member, it has to represent me and my predator. I even had one UAW rep tell me: “You know, it's not sexual harassment if they only do it one time. You shouldn't report it.”

Then I asked myself: Why am I paying union dues when the UAW won't even protect me from sexual harassment? And if Ford isn't going to take appropriate action, shouldn't I be able to get help from my union? Shouldn't my union stand up for me against Ford?

The union's rhetoric was a slap in the face. But it only reaffirmed my desire to seek out other women who experienced similar harassment. And find them I did. I joined the lawsuit with other Chicago women to not only hold Ford accountable, but to fight back against a union refusing to do its job. And I've been scheduled to testify before a state legislative task force to describe our fight against harassment.

While we lost our battles in the workplace, dozens of us are now taking the fight to court, where we hope to finally hold company officials accountable. A victory will not only bring justice to Chicago, but it may even inspire a new generation of women to fight back against their tormentors.

But my other message to them is this: Don't expect your union to have your back. #MeToo.

Tonya Exum is a production team member at Ford's Chicago Stamping Plant. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

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