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Published: Tuesday, 7/8/2008

Rights panel launches Jeep probe

BLADE STAFF
Officials are trying to determine if an environment encouraging sexual harassment exists at Toledo's largest manufacturer. Officials are trying to determine if an environment encouraging sexual harassment exists at Toledo's largest manufacturer.
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The Ohio Civil Rights Commission has launched a special investigation to determine if a hostile work environment that encourages sexual harassment exists at Toledo's largest manufacturer, Chrysler LLC's Toledo Jeep Assembly complex.

The commission, which is responsible for guarding against discrimination and protecting workers from being victimized because of their sex, race, religion, or other identifying factors, has investigated dozens of complaints of harassment from the factory within the last 18 months.

"We are looking at it on a case-by-case basis. But with such a large number of cases, we are looking at it on a larger scale," said Brandi Klein, a spokesman for the commission's office in Columbus.

"We are attempting to make the determination as to whether we should be looking at this on a systemic level."

Darlene Newbern, director of the civil rights commission's Toledo region, said probable cause has been found in several cases dating back to 2005. A majority of charges filed at Jeep have occurred within the last 18 months, she said.

Eighty-five civil rights violation complaints against either Chrysler or its previous owner have been filed by men and women Jeep workers since July, 2005, the commission said. Forty-one cases were filed last year and 12 so far this year.

The agency did not have a count of cases that alleged sexual harassment. Other cases involve job retaliation, and race, age, gender, or disability discrimination.

Several incidents of sexual harassment that began as civil rights complaints have become lawsuits, including one that was the topic of a story in The Blade in 2005. Among those cases are:

•Melody Williams, a former Jeep line worker who became pregnant in 2003 during a relationship with supervisor Torrence Frazier filed suit when the relationship ended. She alleged, in part, that Mr. Frazier forced her to have sex in order for her to get paid for overtime. Her dispute with Chrysler was settled for an undisclosed amount, federal records show.

•Mee O. Sanders, a line worker, filed suit against both Chrysler and the United Auto Workers after she alleged that she was repeatedly harassed by a union steward with whom she had a previous relationship.

Federal Judge David Katz issued a summary judgment this year against the UAW, citing the union with failing in its duty of fair representation and opening the union to potential liability for its handling of her complaints. Ms. Sanders' cases are scheduled to go to trial in November.

•Peggy Winston, a former supervisor in the plant, filed a racial and sexual discrimination federal suit against Chrysler in March after she was allegedly involved in an ongoing altercation with Richard Lott, who allegedly had harassed Ms. Sanders. During one heated exchange on the shop floor in January, 2007, Ms. Winston allegedly keyed the microphone of her communications device and broadcast Mr. Lott's profanity-laced tirade throughout the plant. Ms. Winston amended her complaint in April after her employment with Chrysler was terminated.

Chrysler spokesman Mike Palese said the automaker maintains "a zero tolerance policy for harassment or discrimination of any sort," and the company investigates every such complaint and enforces its policy, "up to and including termination."

The automaker has "a lot of confidence" in that policy, Mr. Palese said. However, he explained, the company will not comment on discrimination cases from Toledo Jeep Assembly now in federal and state courts.

"These matters are in litigation, therefore it's inappropriate for us to discuss a lot of these issues outside the court process," Mr. Palese said.

Similarly, a spokesman for the United Auto Workers said that neither the union nor its local or regional officials would comment on the cases against either it or Chrysler. However, the spokesman said the union planned to appeal the judgment against it in the Sanders case.

Kevin Greenfield, one of two local attorneys representing Ms. Winston in her case against Chrysler, said her case is one of "a number of these out there. We intend to pursue it vigorously on her behalf [in court] if we are unable to reach a settlement."

Other current and former employees, both male and female, have filed sexual harassment suits against the automaker. Some cases have been dismissed, others are pending, court records show.

Denise Knecht, an attorney who is representing Ms. Sanders in lawsuits against both Chrysler LLC and the UAW, and who has represented other workers at Jeep, said neither the company nor the union seems to do much to discourage sexual harassment.

"When somebody complains about sex harassment at Jeep, they go after the person who speaks out," Ms. Knecht said. "The testimony I've accumulated from women who work there just amazes me."

L. Camille Hebert, a professor of law at Ohio State University who specializes in employment law and discrimination cases, said she wasn't specifically aware of the issues at Toledo Jeep, but said the overall number of allegations in recent years "suggests that something's going on" within a population the size of Jeep's approximately 3,500 workers.

"When there are relatively few women in a traditionally male workforce, there tends to be more sexual harassment claims because there tends to be more sexual harassment, frankly," Ms. Hebert said.

"You have situations where women are working into traditional male workplaces and the men don't react positively."

Angie Perone, a spokesman for Equal Rights Advocates of San Francisco, said the number of complaints at Toledo Jeep is "pretty drastic."

"It sounds like there's a problem going on there," she said.



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