Not long after Claudia Lopez began her career in trucking, a male colleague began to touch her back and legs without her consent, and repeatedly told her that he wanted to “marry her after he’s back from 28 days” of training. Lopez later said that the man did this in front of others. She also saw him tell another female driver that her “shirt was too long,” meaning it covered her rear end. Lopez said that she told a human resources representative at the company that employed both of them, and nothing happened.
Her account is one of many tales of sexual harassment experienced by women in trucking. More than 300 women, including Lopez, say that they were sexually harassed on the job at Cedar Rapids Steel Transport, known today as CRST.
Rain or shine, CRST female truckers would deliver for mammoth companies like FedEx, Boeing, and Amazon. In the process, the drivers for the Cedar Rapids, Iowa–based company said that they were sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and in some cases sidelined or forced out of the job for speaking up, according to court documents. The truckers were allegedly catcalled. They said that in some cases, they were even raped.
For the first time, court documents tied to a class action lawsuit against CRST allege that many more companies than previously known, including Fortune 500 brands that market to women, used the trucking firm as a shipper. (Some of the legal documents have been unsealed by a joint request through the nonprofits Public Justice and Type Investigations.) They include: Limited Brands, Gap, UPS, Nordstrom, Daimler, Conagra, Safeway, Coca-Cola, Kohl’s, DuPont, Hobby Lobby, Quaker, Walmart, Macy’s, JCPenney, Duraflame, Sam’s Club, Costco, Sanyo, AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Union Pacific, and Mitsubishi, among others.
Spokespersons for UPS, Daimler, JCPenny, and Costco declined to comment. Spokespersons for the other companies did not respond to requests for comment.
In and out of court, CRST has vigorously denied claims in the class action lawsuit, and spokespersons for the company say it continues to provide job opportunities. The company has said in court filings that its sexual-harassment policies and reporting practices are updated on an ongoing basis, that drivers couldn’t show that they were removed from trucks for complaining about harassment, and that “the record lacks any evidence of pretext.”
Yet critics argue that by using CRST, large companies are effectively underwriting the abuse of women workers. While that largely goes unseen by the public, shipping firms like CRST are conduits of the economy—and, increasingly, the goods we buy online.
“These are brands that are aimed at women,” said Desiree Wood, the founder of Real Women in Trucking, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 that represents many female drivers. “Why do you have to wait until there’s something like an R. Kelly documentary to come out? Be proactive. They talk about their supply chain, human trafficking, fair trade, but do they even know what’s going on in their domestic supply chain?”
The truckers are part of a #MeToo movement. Of course, they’re far from alone. Our era has brought many careers down and many female consumer activism movements up. There was Mo’Nique’s call to boycott Netflix amid gender and racial bias complaints, along with calls to boycott Wendy’s over its treatment of female farmworkers, Monster Energy, manufacturer of energy drinks, for its office culture, and Twitter about not doing enough to protect women when they report harassment on the platform, just to name just a few.
Aside from ongoing courtroom battles, the big-ticket brands that use CRST, particularly those that target women in their marketing, are giving energy to the protests by Real Women in Trucking, Wood said.
Citing their use of CRST, women in trucking staged a social-media campaign leading up to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in December. Truckers targeted the company online with a variety of Twitter handles like NoTouchFreight and BelieveTruckHERS:
@VictoriasSecret @L_Brands According to your website, you have a #supplychain policy for your international partners but there is no evidence of a Domestic policy. We are asking you to join the #BrandsTakingStands movement & dump CRST International #Rape #sexharassment
— NoTouchFreight (@sleep_at_wheel) November 29, 2018
@Wexnertweets Perhaps it is just an oversight that @L_Brands who appears to have high standards here https://t.co/AYAIGOgUzr would use a #supplychain partner like CRST International that has decades of #sexualmisconduct issues in their training program
— BelieveTruckHERS (@shpng_n_hndlg) December 2, 2018
Every time we buy or pick something that is supporting these companies is as bad as buying cheaper products made by slave labor. Be aware how and where it gets here and who makes it https://t.co/n9LOme46KI
— Idella Hansen (@Purpletruck213) December 3, 2018
Wood and her organization point out that the website for L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret, states that the company “is fully committed to ensuring our products are ethically sourced,” but it does not specify what those guidelines are for its shipping companies.
Wood said that she wrote a letter to representatives of L Brands asking the company to cease its relationship with CRST. “Our hopes were that CRST would implement sweeping reforms as a result of the media attention and continued litigation but this has not been the case,” the letter reads. “Instead we’ve seen tokenism marketing that only creates a sinister message to truck drivers that they do not care and are untouchable.” Her organization is continuing to receive distress calls from female drivers, she says, one as recently as November 2018.
“Thank you for reporting your concern,” Jennifer Estey, L Brands’ director of ethics and compliance, wrote back on December 6. “We take all concerns raised seriously and we will review the information you provided to determine appropriate next steps according to company protocols.”
A spokesperson for L Brands did not respond to requests for comment.
It hasn’t been an easy ride in court, either. The truckers in the class action case against CRST hit a setback earlier this year when a judge granted CRST’s request to have the class decertified, a decision the drivers’ lawyers are appealing. “All the more reason to keep fighting this in the court of public opinion,” said Joshua Friedman, a lawyer representing the truckers.
Outside ofthe courts, it has already brought attention to an oft-overlooked blue-collar workplace.
According to the newly unsealed court records, there were allegedly 135 occasions when a woman had to get off her truck due to sexual harassment. One driver, Leslie Fortune, complained that a co-driver had engaged in misconduct, including discussing how a prostitute “made his dick get hard” and calling Fortune a “psychotic fat black bitch.” Another driver said her male co-driver tickled and touched her and told her about the size of his penis. When asked about it by a human resources representative, allegedly the male driver said she had been “a flirt,” and he was allowed to keep driving.
None of the female drivers said that they were allowed to continue working after they had lodged a complaint about the harassment, according to the newly unsealed court records. CRST declined to partner the complainants with trainers, and because in trucking you don’t typically make money unless the rig is in motion, they went without pay. Harassers, meanwhile, were generally allowed to continue to drive—claims the company has said were false.
The drivers also charged that the sexual-harassment hotline wasn’t staffed 24/7 and often went to voicemail. In a deposition, a representative with CRST’s human resources department said that the company didn’t corroborate complaints without an eyewitness or admission from the accused.
According to CRST’s records, there were 209 sexual-harassment complaints by female drivers against male drivers that were “not corroborated” during the period of the class action, October 2013 to February 2016. In nearly 60 percent of those cases, CRST’s records show that it “disregarded evidence that could potentially have corroborated the victim’s complaint.”
While some of the details about CRST’s inner workings are new, in particular which companies still use CRST for shipping, discontent among female drivers has been known since at least 2015. Many of the companies using the driving company have continued to do so since then, according to the documents.
The CRST female drivers are to some extent the canaries of the highway. As more Americans are finding themselves in a position familiar to most truck drivers—working as contractors—there are likely to be more cases like this. That means even more questions may be asked about the ethics of how supply chains work, particularly stateside, and the corporations that fuel them.
One in five American workers is a contractor or a freelancer, according to a January 2018 NPR/Marist poll, a number that some project may grow to half the American workforce in the next decade.
Yet the bulk of American labor law was created in a different time for a different economy. This shift to freelancing is “putting a strain on the ability to provide labor protections,” said Gillian K. Hadfield, a professor of law and professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto. That raises questions about who controls a platform and what the rules are, in trucking and beyond.
“Technology doesn’t have to disempower workers, but it takes thoughtfulness and leadership” to avoid this societal error, she said.
Historically, when companies have used terms like “supply-chain ethics,” they referred to offshore factories or labor practices, evoking controversies like the criticism Nike and others have faced for using sweatshop labor overseas. Many companies, including those that use CRST, have since adopted language on their websites proclaiming that their products are ethically created. But the human toll of product delivery is rarely touched upon.
“The supply-chain codes of conduct on company websites are totally bogus,” said Erik Loomis, an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s not backed up by a legal consequence. They’re just a bunch of words to make it sound like employers care, but in reality, the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 and the conditions haven’t improved.”
One thing trucker activists may have going for their cause, Loomis said, is geography. “It’s easier to get public support when it’s at home.” As he sees it, one aim of globalization is to separate points of consumption from the points of production.
That distance can exacerbate an already existing disconnect between consumers and the people who make their goods or ship them, Loomis said, particularly with blue-collar trades like trucking. Still, it’s “entirely possible” that companies can face pressure, he said, pointing to examples like the United Farm Workers grape boycott or Justice for Janitors. “But in the U.S., for female truckers, they would have to build a campaign that’s locally based, community-based, and would build on the pre-existing feminist movement,” Loomis concluded.
The general public is mostly in the dark about the reality for truckers. “Most people don’t even know that women drive trucks,” said Anne Balay, a professor at Haverford College and the author of Semi Queer, a collection of true stories from queer truckers—she herself has worked as a trucker. “You’ve got to start with some basic educating the public.”
What’s more, the clients of many truck companies can also be unknown to the drivers, Balay said. While drivers always know generally what they’re hauling (produce, apparel), sometimes the orders and contracts are kept from the drivers until the last minute of a load’s pre-plan. That’s what makes the revelation of CRST’s corporate partners so critical for grassroots activism.
“The trucking companies are good at keeping that information from the public and even from drivers,” Balay said. “It’s very mystified and covert, the whole process of freight movement is, so even the people who are doing it often aren’t given any notice of who is doing what.”
Lip service to “company protocols” is unlikely to be enough now that some of the toughest female workers in America have gotten organized to protect themselves and each other.
“There’s so much pent-up anger and hurt,” Wood said. “And you have people who are doing things that are wrong. People should know.”
This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.