CHICAGO — The jobs were the best they would ever have: collecting union wages while working at Ford, one of America's most storied companies. But inside two Chicago plants, the women found menace.
Bosses and fellow laborers treated them as property or prey. Men crudely commented on their breasts and buttocks; graffiti of penises was carved into tables, spray-painted onto floors and scribbled onto walls. They groped women, pressed against them, simulated sex acts or masturbated in front of them. Supervisors traded better assignments for sex and punished those who refused.
That was a quarter-century ago. Today, women at those plants say they have been subjected to many of the same abuses. And like those who complained before them, they say they were mocked, dismissed, threatened and ostracized. One described being called "snitch bitch," while another was accused of "raping the company." Many of the men who they say hounded them kept their jobs.
In August, the federal agency that combats workplace discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, reached a $10 million settlement with Ford for sexual and racial harassment at the two Chicago plants. A lawsuit is still making its way through the courts. This, too, happened before: In the 1990s, a string of lawsuits and an E.E.O.C. investigation resulted in a $22 million settlement and a commitment by Ford to crack down.
For Sharon Dunn, who sued Ford back then, the new lawsuit was a fresh blow. "For all the good that was supposed to come out of what happened to us, it seems like Ford did nothing," she said. "If I had that choice today, I wouldn't say a damn word."
In recent months, as women have spoken out about harassment — at media companies and technology start-ups, in the entertainment industry and on Capitol Hill — they have spurred quick action, with accused men toppling from lofty positions, corporations pledging change and lawmakers promising new protections.
But much less attention has been focused on the plight of blue-collar workers, like those on Ford's factory floors. After the #MeToo movement opened a global floodgate of accounts of mistreatment, a former Chicago worker proposed a new campaign: "#WhatAboutUs."
Their story reveals the stubborn persistence of harassment in an industry once the exclusive preserve of men, where abuses can be especially brazen. For the Ford women, the harassment has endured even though they work for a multinational corporation with a professional human resources operation, even though they are members of one of the country's most powerful unions, even though a federal agency and then a federal judge sided with them, and even after independent monitors policed the factory floors for several years.
At a moment when so many people are demanding that sexual harassment no longer be tolerated, the story of the Ford plants shows the challenges of transforming a culture.
Workers describe a mix of sex, swagger, suspicion and racial resentment that makes the factories — the Chicago Assembly Plant and the Chicago Stamping Plant — particularly volatile.
The plants are self-enclosed worlds where employees pass on job referrals so relatives, classmates and longtime friends can work together. They share gossip and rumors, but also keep secrets that entrench bad behavior. Many feel deep loyalty to Ford and their union, and resent the female accusers, fearing they may damage the company and jeopardize good paychecks and generous benefits. Some women are suspected of gaming a system where sex is a powerful lever.
Ford has worked to combat harassment at the plants, including recently stepping up disciplinary efforts and installing new leadership. But over the years the company did not act aggressively or consistently enough to root out the problem, according to interviews with more than 100 current and former employees and industry experts, and a review of legal documents.
Ford delayed firing those accused of harassment, leaving workers to conclude that offenders would go unpunished. It let sexual harassment training wane and, women charge, failed to stamp out retaliation.
The local union, obliged to protect both accusers and the accused, was divided, with a leadership that included alleged predators. And even the outsiders whom women turned to for help, including lawyers and the E.E.O.C., left some of them feeling betrayed.
Ford officials say they view the harassment as episodic, not systemic, with an outbreak in the '90s and another beginning in 2010 as new workers flooded in. They say they take all claims seriously and investigate them thoroughly. Responding to the national outcry over sexual harassment, Ford's chief executive, Jim Hackett, released a video to employees last week about appropriate behavior. "The test would be if you go to work, have experiences, and go home and tell your family about it and be proud of what went on," he said. "We do not expect or accept any harassment in the workplaces here at Ford."
Shirley Cain, who arrived at the stamping plant five years ago and had to fend off advances from supervisors and co-workers alike, was skeptical. "That's not the reality," she said. "They don't even go on the floor, so they don't know what goes on."