Women's Rights: United Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls

On March 20, 1991, the United States Supreme Court ruled that companies cannot discriminate against women by limiting their job opportunities because of potential reproductive hazards. Between 1979 and 1983, eight Johnson Control employees became pregnant. The blood lead levels of these pregnant employees exceeded the critical blood lead levels for individuals wishing to have children as established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As a result, Johnson Controls issued a policy that excluded pregnant women and women of childbearing age from jobs involving lead exposure.

The United Automobile Workers (UAW) challenged the implementation of this policy, stating that Johnson Controls was violating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Employees involved in this legal case included a woman who had been sterilized to keep her job, as well as a woman who had experienced a pay cut after being transferred to a new job. After the case had been dismissed under the District Court and the Court of Appeals, the UAW asked for review of the policy by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is a policy that excludes pregnant or fertile women from participating in jobs that may be hazardous to reproductive systems a form of sexual discrimination?

On March 20, 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Johnson Controls’ policy discriminated against women by not requiring their male counterparts to also provide proof of infertility. In addition, the Supreme Court added that Johnson Control’s policy fell outside the scope of Title VII, arguing that the protection of fetuses is not an essential part of business operations.

This decision represented a step in the right direction for women, as it forced companies to consider women and men equally in the workplace. In addition, this decision gives women the freedom to make their own choices as to when a particular job is too dangerous for their well-being.

This case also shed light on exposures that were harmful to all workers. Lead is a disruptor of the endocrine system, which regulates hormones involved in the reproductive pathways of both men and women. Therefore, endocrine disrupters, including lead, can negatively affect the reproductive systems of both sexes. Similarly, every exposure that presents a reproductive hazard also has other health effects. For that reason, banning women from participating in certain jobs does NOT make the workplace safer, given that the lead exposure hazard is still present for all workers.