AAUW CHAPTER AND NWHM HONOR THE REAL WOMEN OF “NORTH COUNTRY”
BACKGROUND ON THE CLASS ACTION SUIT BROUGHT AGAINST EVELETH MINES
(Provided by Stephanie Carlson of the AAUW Chapter in Hibbing, Minnesota)
Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range is home to the largest Iron ore deposit in the world. Since red iron ore was discovered in 1890 by the Merritt brothers, men have toiled in the iron mines, that is until 1974 when 9 of the country’s largest steel companies signed a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Labor Department requiring the industry’s mines to provide 20% of its new jobs to women and minorities. And in 1975 four women walked into the Eveleth Mines Forbes Fairlane Plant for the first time. Among these women was a 27-year-old single mother named Lois Jenson. Jenson took a job at the mines because it paid 3 times as much as she could earn anywhere else and she needed a job that would pay enough to support herself and her young son and provide benefits such as health care. Her female colleagues at the mines sought employment there for much of the same reasons, many were family breadwinners and some were single women trying to support themselves. They all came looking for financial independence, but what they found would cost them so much more.
The men that worked at the mine were very vocal about their opposition to the women working at the mine right from the start and that disapproval turned ugly quickly. Pornographic pictures and graffiti began showing up everywhere around the mine, dildos modeled out of waterproofing material appeared in the women’s workplaces, lewd jokes and unwelcome physical contact form co-workers and supervisors became everyday occurrences. As more women were hired the harassment just got worse. The behavior of the men escalated into stalking, assault and threats of rape.
Women that complained about the behavior would find themselves threatened or exiled to work in isolated parts of the plant. Where they would find themselves vulnerable to the men. One woman found herself working at the top of a conveyor that was 6 blocks long and high above a pile of taconite. One day her foreman followed her to the top when they reached the end of the conveyor he tried to kiss her, she was terrified, he could shove her out into the pile of taconite and no one would ever find her. She managed to escape that situation, but it would not be the last time she would be threatened or assaulted. Another woman was forced to work with a man who would drop his pants when they were alone. In most areas of the mine there were no bathroom facilities for women and the men and management took a “deal with it” attitude when the women complained, the men did not need bathrooms, why should the women. As a result of not having facilities, many of the women would stop drinking and have to hold their urine for hours resulting in dehydration and severe bladder and kidney infections.
When the women continued to complain many of the men would justify the behavior and call it “teasing” or “just having fun” and they would excuse it by saying it was just part of their culture, but the women viewed it as hostile, threatening and humiliating. The harassment was reported repeatedly to supervisors, management and the union but nothing changed. The women were caught between management and the union. The women were also a part of the union and it was unacceptable practice to rat on your union brothers, but as they women quickly found out, the union officials were also men and that fact superceded everything, even union loyalties.
The women learned to deal with their work environment in their own ways. Some took on the “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” attitude and started dishing it out to the men. Some carried weapons for self-defense, others took sick days to recover from attacks, and as a result of it all, their mental health continued to decline, they found themselves becoming people they and their family and friends did not recognize.
It all came to a head in 1984 when Lois Jenson was stalked by a salaried co-worker who broke into her home and threatened her son. The union still refused to help her and management promised to transfer him but it never happened. She had had enough, so she filed a complaint with the State Department of Human Rights in October of 1984. The State found probable cause and requested that the mine institute a sexual harassment policy and pay punitive damages for mental anguish. The company agreed to adopt a sexual harassment policy but refused to pay any money. The harassment continued and intensified. After the policy was instituted signs that read, “Sexual harassment will not be tolerated, but will be graded,” began appearing around the mine. This began the string of legal battles and worsening harassment. Over the next several years the case dragged on until an attorney from the Attorney General’s office persuaded Jenson to turn her complaint into a class action. From there she hired a private law firm and began to try to convince other women to join her in the law suit, what she ended up doing was alienating most of the other women and the union, but she persevered and found an ally in Patricia Kosmach and in 1988 the two women finally convinced enough others to join them and in 1988 the suit was certified as a class action with the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.
At that time, the plaintiffs were willing to settle the case, but Oglebay Norton, owners of Eveleth Mines, refused the terms and the case continued for 10 more years. The case went to trial in 1992 and the court ruled that Eveleth Mines maintained a hostile work environment and ordered the company to develop a policy and educate employees about sexual harassment and they also ordered that they enact a procedure for effectively addressing complaints.
The damages phase of the trial began another round of humiliation and brutality against the women, this time at the hands of the attorneys. The defense delved into every painful detail of the women’s lives. Their personal and sexual pasts were picked apart; every detail was on display regardless of its relevance to the case. Pat Kosmach, who originally had her name on the suit with Jenson, developed ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) during the course of the trial. Her illness was in no way related to or a result of the case, but one example of the ruthlessness of the defense attorneys was demonstrated when they burst into her hospital room and demanded to see her medical records and tried to depose her when she could no longer even speak. She did before the case ended and her heirs received nothing from the settlement. But this tactic ended up backfiring on the employer, the court issued a strongly worded opinion and set a trial date for December 1998, 13 years after Lois Jenson had filed her first complaint and 23 years after she first walked through the doors of Eveleth Mines.
The women settled on New Years Eve 1997, but it was a hollow victory, many of the women were sick, exhausted and bitter. The damage was done and it was irreparable. They settled for modest amounts and they never received what Lois wanted all along; an apology. And because of that, the settlement and the lasting emotional scars, closure was never really achieved for any of the women.
As for the mine, litigation and negative publicity could have been avoided and millions of dollars saved if Oglebay Norton, Eveleth Mines and the union would have addressed the women’s complaints and taken steps to effectively rectify the situation and protect them. Lois Jenson’s first request was for just that, an educational sexual harassment policy, compensation for her stress related health problems and job security, but they flatly refused.
In the end the suit set many very important precedents. First, it sent a strong message to employers that they could not ignore it when their employees were being harassed sexually. The case also drew very clear lines regarding who has the burden of proving that a hostile work environment is the cause of a plaintiff’s mental anguish or emotional distress, these two decisions have made both the workplace and the courtroom safer for sexual harassment victims. But most importantly by certifying the case as a class action, the court put the principles of collective bargaining to work in the courtroom and it gave once powerless, voiceless workingwomen a platform to demand change and the leverage to achieve it.