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Ford Again in Precedent-Setting Labor Rights Fight

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Topics:  Ford Motor Company

Ford Again in Precedent-Setting Labor Rights Fight

Bill Crittenden
February 5, 2015

EEOC Complaint

Regardless of what you may have heard about the modern automotive factory replacing workers with automatic robotic welders, it still takes a lot of human minds and hands to take a car from design to finished product. Having as many workers as the auto industry does inevitably puts the auto industry at the forefront of every major labor and workers' rights issue, as it has done throughout its history.

Ever since Henry Ford started paying his workers a five-dollar-a-day minimum wage, which set a new standard for industrial work at the time that many businessmen did not appreciate, the Ford Motor Company seems to be a lightning rod for labor issues. Some of Ford's workers still wanted to unionize by the 1930's, and the resulting struggle included clashes with police and Ford-contracted security in major incidents as the 1932 Hunger March (4 deaths, 60 injuries) and 1937's colorfully named Battle of the Overpass when Ford "Service Department" (not the dealership techs, this was an anti-labor internal security force) men literally broke the back of a labor organizer.

Of course these problems weren't limited to Ford. Most notably British Leyland suffocated under the weight of walkouts that affected almost every British industry in the 1970's, which led Top Gear to declare next to a burning BL automobile that their cars were better as braziers than as actual cars, because that's what the workers knew (from standing outside the factory trying to stay warm rather than working inside it, if you need more context). In the 1980's the closing of General Motors' Flint plant launched Michael Moore's controversial documentary career with his film Roger & Me.

Of course these issues don't always stay confined to the auto industry. The potential plight of the entire concept of the iconic American autoworker was in jeopardy as economic collapse threatened Detroit's "Big 3" with bankruptcy, prompting the GM & Chrysler bailouts of '08 which helped create the idea of a company "too big to fail," the bailouts and this idea becoming Presidential campaign issues in both 2008 and 2012.

So it came as no surprise to me that when a potential legal issue regarding workers came along that promises to be one of the more divisive of our generation (among those who follow the issues at hand), a case whose precedent could impact most office workers across this nation, that case originated in the offices of an automaker.

It was Ford again, where last week the Liberty Institute, whose motto is "Restoring Religious Liberty in America," filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regarding the firing of Thomas Banks, a Product Engineer and devout Christian who said in response to a Ford policy article, in a comment box provided by Ford, the following:

For this Ford Motor should be thoroughly ashamed. Endorsing and promoting sodomy is of benefit to no one. This topic is disruptive to the workplace and is an assault on Christians and morality, as well as antithetical to our design and our survival. Immoral sexual conduct should not be a topic for an automotive manufacturer to endorse or promote. And yes-this is historic-but not in a good way. Never in the history of mankind has a culture survived that promotes sodomy. Heterosexual behavior creates life- homosexual behavior leads to death.

It's a case reminiscent of fights between Westboro Baptist Church and anyone who just wanted to live in peace but found themselves targeted by the church. But since the issue at hand isn't the First Amendment in a public space, the "rules of engagement" of this battle are very different: this fight deals with private workplaces, equal employment anti-discrimination laws and the company's own anti-discrimination policies, and more to the point who takes precedence when a peculiar incident puts the rules in conflict with themselves.

Obviously, these rules can't work to protect Mr. Banks' right to express his beliefs and protect other employees from ever hearing them when they're hateful, so Ford made a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" kind of decision. Ford was either going to piss off either the LGBTQ community or it was going to piss off religious liberty activists, and they made their choice. But Thomas Banks wasn't going to accept that decision quietly.

Now the future of handling religiously motivated speech in America's offices may rest in the hands of the legal department of The Ford Motor Company. Ford's ability to defend itself against the charges may help decide who wins and loses under these common policies for not only Ford but through precedent the large segment of the American labor market that has similar policies.

Just another day at the office for the hundreds of thousands of employees of America's automakers.

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