Divided Ranks: Women at Mitsubishi Say Union Fell Short on Sexual Harassment

Women at Mitsubishi Say Union Fell Short On Sexual Harassment UAW Local Rarely Filed Grievances, Though It Says It Took Other Action – Tracing One Complex Case

The Wall Street Journal
Rochelle Sharpe

NORMAL, Ill. – Feeling tormented by sexual harassment, women at Mitsubishi’s auto plant here pleaded with their union for help.

But many became disillusioned with the United Auto Workers, complaining that the union often ignored their claims.

Terry Paz, for instance, told the UAW local five years ago that a co-worker had grabbed her breasts, wiggled his tongue at her and asked what sex positions she liked best. But she couldn’t get the union to file a grievance against the company for allowing a hostile work environment.After she hired a lawyer and filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the company fired the man. Only then did the union file a formal grievance. It was on behalf of the co-worker, trying to get him his job back.

Women brought dozens of complaints to union leaders about male co-workers’ behavior, ranging from vulgar remarks to lewd gestures, but the union filed only six harassment grievances with Mitsubishi in eight years. Some women appealed to the UAW’s international headquarters in Detroit, but although it has a national reputation for sensitivity to sexual harassment, it declined to force the issue.

Current UAW leaders won’t discuss the union’s actions, but former officials say the union was in a tough position, trying to protect its members’ jobs as they filed complaints against one another. Disputes between members are “very difficult for the union,” says David Bevans, a former president of the local. “You try to talk to both parties rather than take a side. Whose word are you going to take? So how does a union proceed in these matters except by being diplomatic?”

While president from 1991 to 1994, Mr. Bevans publicly warned members about sexual harassment more than once – even printing the EEOC telephone number in the union newspaper.

A weak labor contract didn’t help matters. The one at the Mitsubishi plant lacks specific provisions for dealing with sexual harassment, encourages workers and managers to solve problems together before getting the union involved, and lacks a key clause that, in the Big Three auto makers’ UAW contracts, helps to get complaints investigated quickly.

Mary Becker, a union leader who left Mitsubishi during the year Ms. Paz was filing her complaints, says that the local typically raised one sexual-harassment complaint with Mitsubishi every week, but the company wouldn’t acknowledge that any claim had merit. “Neither the company nor the union knew how to deal with sexual harassment,” Ms. Becker says. “They didn’t know the complexity of it. They probably didn’t believe a lot of it.”

The EEOC in April filed a class-action suit against Mitsubishi, one that could become the largest sexual-harassment case in the nation’s history. Mitsubishi denied the EEOC claims, saying that there had been “very limited, isolated” sexual-harassment incidents and that it had “zero tolerance” for such conduct.

But for Ms. Paz, a single mother who is now 36, harassment had evidently been a repeated problem at the plant. She got herself transferred out of one department to get away from a man she said was harassing her. But soon after she arrived in the chassis department in 1991, she began complaining that a worker named Cy Kelly, now 32, was persistently asking her out on dates. She told union and company officials that Mr. Kelly wouldn’t accept her refusals, would tell her he could make her happier than her boyfriend, and would sometimes grab her or lick his lips when she looked his way.

Ms. Paz told him to leave her alone, says George Larney, who eventually arbitrated the case (Ms. Paz declines to be interviewed). She turned to the union local’s president, then Mr. Bevans, who asked her to speak with her union representative. She also talked to the company, but later complained that its response made matters worse because a manager who addressed her work group about harassment cited her by name.

At about the same time, Mr. Kelly says, he started complaining to the same union representative – wanting to file charges against Ms. Paz for harassing him. “She kept saying I was doing all this stuff, and it was lies,” he says. He and Ms. Paz were friendly, he says, until he discovered she was dating his best friend, who was married. Ms. Paz acknowledged dating the married man, the arbitrator says.

Ms. Paz, meanwhile, began complaining to union and company officials that Mr. Kelly was starting to follow her around her neighborhood and was writing graffiti about her in the men’s room of a local bar, allegations he denies. She repeatedly asked the union to file a grievance. But officials with the power to file one – the bargaining committee – refused to do so.

The committee chairman was a man named Terry Bolte. He no longer heads the bargaining committee; the week the EEOC filed its suit, Mr. Bolte got a promotion to a job with UAW headquarters. He declines to be interviewed.

Mr. Bevans, who didn’t have authority to file a grievance, says he tried to resolve the matter informally. “It’s just not standard practice to encourage discipline to be brought against a member. What you try to do is settle the thing,” he says.

(Rosalind Porter, a former employee who sought to press a racial-harassment complaint, says she too heard this line of thought, being told by a predecessor of Mr. Bevans that she shouldn’t go after her “brothers and sisters” in the union.)

Mr. Bevans says he talked with Mr. Kelly three times, once warning him, “Your family is going to lose its job.” Mr. Kelly says he doesn’t remember meeting with Mr. Bevans.

The local’s president says he finally turned to the civil-rights committee, telling it that he had investigated the matter and thought Mr. Kelly had in fact harassed Ms. Paz. The civil-rights committee was eager to help in many harassment matters, but could do little unless the bargaining committee asked it to – which the committee didn’t. George Walker, then the civil-rights committee’s chairman, finally asked UAW headquarters how to persuade his local to file a grievance.

But by now, Ms. Paz had hired a lawyer and formally complained a second time to Mitsubishi on her own. After her second complaint, in mid-1992, Mitsubishi fired Mr. Kelly, along with another man accused of sexual harassment. Ms. Paz still wanted the union to file a formal complaint over allowing a hostile work environment, but the local continued to refuse and UAW headquarters wouldn’t push it to do so.

As workers heard about the firings, they began to blame the civil-rights committee. “When someone believes you got people fired, you are a pariah,” Mr. Walker says. Protecting jobs was the union’s priority, he and other committee members say, adding that union leaders consistently chose to safeguard jobs rather than pursue harassment complaints.

Indeed, many female and minority workers felt that union leaders catered mainly to their majority constituency of white males, say civil-rights-committee members. “I’ve heard too many union officials say, `Hey, McDonald’s is always hiring,'” when they received harassment complaints, says Sandra Gilbert, who headed the civil-rights committee in 1995.

Union leaders seemed mostly interested in their perks of power, charges Patrick Bott, an active union member until he recently lost his job for unexcused absences. Some got company jobs for their relatives, Mr. Bott says, and the union allowed tailgate parties outside the UAW hall, where a stripper occasionally performed. The union declines to comment.

Barry Gardner, a former assembly worker, says union leaders showed no interest in the fact that pictures of sex parties were being passed around in the workplace. Shortly before the EEOC suit, Mr. Gardner was fired for failing to promptly admit that he had placed on a woman’s locker a face shield marred with an etching of a woman’s legs spread open. Trying to prove that others had done far worse and not been fired, he says, he showed union leaders photos of workers and managers cavorting sexually with scantily clad women at going-away parties off the premises. “They acted like I’d got leprosy,” he says.

“The local leadership simply refuses to believe that racial or sexual discrimination exists in that plant,” contends Donald Jackson, a lawyer representing two employees in a race-discrimination suit.

Attorney Patricia Benassi, who is suing Mitsubishi for sexual harassment on behalf of Ms. Paz and 27 other women, says she considered suing the union as well, but “we didn’t want to make two enemies.” (Both this suit and the EEOC action were filed in federal court in Peoria, Ill., and name the Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc. unit of Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors Corp.)

UAW Local 2488 in Normal is one of only three with contracts with Japanese-owned companies. The agreement calls on management to promote an environment of “Wa, or harmony among people.” Instead of the term “grievances,” it speaks of “problem resolution procedures.”

The contract doesn’t allow the union to file a grievance until members follow a lengthy process. First, employees must talk with their direct supervisor about the issue. If dissatisfied, they can speak with their union coordinator, who must meet with company officials. Only then can a grievance be filed.

The local nonetheless has filed hundreds of grievances in the nine-year history of the assembly plant – on issues other than sexual harassment. Ms. Becker, who served on the bargaining committee at the time of the Paz-Kelly dispute, says she didn’t file written sexual-harassment grievances but rather discussed such complaints with the company. For one thing, “if you’ve got two [employees] and you can’t find guilt on the company, then you don’t have a grievance,” she says. In addition, the union was reluctant to put such complaints in writing because “once it gets into the written stage, the union has an obligation to the [employee] to get it resolved in any way that it can,” she says.

Another complication is that if the union complains to the company about a harasser and that person gets fired, the union – as protector of jobs – is in the awkward position of trying to help the member get his job back. It is even possible, says the arbitrator who heard Mr. Kelly’s case, that a man who was fired in such an instance might have a legal case against his union for failing to represent him.

In the Paz-Kelly case, although former local president Mr. Bevans says he believed Mr. Kelly was in fact a sexual-harasser and warned him he was jeopardizing his job, once Mr. Kelly did lose his job, the union filed a grievance to get him his job back. It took the matter to arbitration, as unions typically do in discharge cases. Mr. Kelly lost.

Mr. Bevans twice wrote in the union newspaper in 1991 about the large numbers of harassment complaints, stating that harassment mustn’t be tolerated. In one case, after printing an EEOC 800-number, he added: “If it happens, don’t let it go on. Take steps to stop it quickly. Use the number.”

In Mr. Bevans’s view, one problem has been that Local 2488’s contract lacks an “equal-application agreement.” Such agreements, included in many auto-union contracts, typically establish a joint committee of union and company leaders that investigates complaints within 48 hours. The committees can recommend remedies other than discipline. The complaining employee and an alleged harasser, meanwhile, are separated immediately.

Local 2488’s civil-rights committee met with Mitsubishi officials about getting such an agreement in September 1992, warning the company – presciently, it turns out – that “the rise in complaints is indicative of a deteriorating situation as it relates to women and minorities, which could have serious repercussions to both the company and the union.”

Mitsubishi said getting an equal-application agreement would require reopening the contract. And the union didn’t push for such an agreement in later contract negotiations, committee members say.

In recent weeks, international and local UAW leaders have begun sniping at one another over their handling of the sexual-harassment complaints at Mitsubishi and the EEOC suit. Paul Korman, director of the UAW region that includes the Mitsubishi plant, won’t comment on specific incidents but says, “The UAW probably could have done more.”

These days, union officials are holding private meetings to figure out how they can show they are tough on harassment. The international has announced it will launch intensive sexual-harassment sensitivity training this week for about 100 officials of the local. Another idea they are considering: an equal-application agreement.