Background on Class Action Suit

(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.

20 Responses to “Background on Class Action Suit”

  1. Jenette Marie says:

    I graduated from UMD in 1990. I remember this case. I live and was from the Twin Cities…Thanks to the brave women and their courage, women are treated better in employment everywhere. These women and Lois are silent heroes. They just did what was “right”. They are heroes and examples of great women. I have four girls. I have made them watch North Country, and I am reading them this article today about these woman. Thank you, God Bless You.

  2. NWHM says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jenette! Glad you are sharing examples of incredible women in history with your daughters.

  3. As a frequent reader of this site, I want to wish you good to have a year 2013 with many joys and professional accomplishments. I wish you strength work continues to write, so you can maintain this wonderful website. Happy New Year for you and for all those who make up the community of this site.

  4. TT says:

    I just saw the movie about this case, good film. Reminded me very much of the Norma Rae story and case. Yes, brave women, but scarred for life women. They never should have experienced that in the first place. I was shocked to see how their union that they paid into didn’t even help those women employees. How shameful. Thank good ness for groups like the Equal Rights Organization and the ACLU. If not for those, women might not still be able to work on jobs where men rule.

  5. NWHM says:

    Dear TT,

    Thank you so much for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. NWHM says:

    Dear Ms. Greace,

    Thank you so much for your kind wishes! Glad you enjoy the site.

  7. M. McCain says:

    I saw the movie “North Country” for the first time last night. I was channel surfing and started watching this film and became interested in the story line. I could not stop watching and wanted to see the outcome. I am glad Ms. Jensen followed through with wanting a safe woring environment. It is women like her and others who are the heroes for justice for women and others. Thanks for standing up and may God continue to bless you.

  8. NWHM says:

    Dear M. McCain,

    Thank you so much for your interest in our site and being inspired by incredible women.

  9. Awesome blog, i really like your content.

  10. Michael Moffett says:

    I just watched the movie and read this article and as a man I was sick to stomach! There MUST have been men there that empathisized with these women and I think it’s spineless of them to allow it to go on and never say anything. I don’t fully understand living in an area where it’s the only means of income for the community but still the things that were done are just inhumane for any one to be victim of, see or know of it going go and say nothing.

    Thank GOD for these women as the world I live in now, I don’t think it could get that bad, I hope with every ounce of my being that would’nt.

    There is no doubt in my mind that these women will never recover from what was done to them, the mine should have paid them very well as they will need therpay for the rest of thier lives. They should be able to go back and get additional financial support for medical for the rest of thier lives!!!

  11. NWHM says:


    Thank you for your passionate comment. We are glad you enjoyed the article.

  12. Dee Turner says:

    Thanks for supplying more information regarding this film. It was a remarkable movie……I hope that Ms.Jensen and others are well at this time. I thank them for their courage.

  13. In 1976 I was working in a kitchen of a well known hotel. New partners were brought into the resturant and we were suppost to let hem opbserve us at work so they could possibly find ways to increase time efficiency. On many ocassions I would be in a walk in collore or freezer and turn around and those animals were in the freezer with me running there slimy hands over me. I would always tell them to leave me alone and leave the area and report it. One day my boss pulled me into the office and said the “guys” did not like how I was treating them. Needless to say I told my boss “to bring his wife in and let them touch her”. Well in about I week I was told because of my poor attitude I was fired. They offered me one weeks pay but I insisted more and received it (2 weeks). Shaking like a leaf on a tree I went home in tears as I knew my family neded that money. When I tell that story to grown women today I am disapointed that women still are shocked that I would stand up to a man “like that” for my rights as a human being. Now an artist after all of these years all of my work is somehow connected to women’s social justice and to the everyday experiences in our lives.

  14. NWHM says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Bonnie!

  15. LAHs says:

    Great movie. I have always spoken up for women’s rights. Sometimes I have won and sometimes I lost. Regardless of the outcome you have to stand up and speak out. I think the most important thing is that you must stand together with other women – just like they said in this movie, you have to go with the pack (or words to that effect). Men do that but women don’t. Until we learn to stand together with our sisters we will always be held back by men.

  16. USA Culture of Rapw says:

    Serialized harassment is the main way in which men have stolen liberty and justice from women. Its high time their bullying ends and its high time men themselves admit that their own insecurities are the cause of the behavior all of which is bad for humanity as a whole. Progress, as it is, has stalled, just as has the economy, in response to the constant unending repression of women. Removing that repression is the only cure for what ails this nation.

  17. Anica Roti says:

    After watching the movie for about the fifth time, I searched for the real story online and came across this site. I am of the age (43) and location (Chicago) where things like what happened to these women does not happen. I think it’s important that younger women who have never had to go through this hardship take a look back at those who came before us and thank them for what they did so that we would have it better. Thank You

  18. Tracy Rodgers says:

    I can’t believe that Anica believes that sexual harassment doesn’t happen today. It always will maybe not to the degree it did in this movie but it is still out there.

  19. Megan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. I’m so grateful for these women, if it wasn’t for them I might not be operating a crane today. The history is very interesting , thanks again

  20. Christine Freund says:

    Thanks to Stephanie Carlson and NWHM for the detailed background information! I recently re-watched the film based on this case, and it is more powerful for me now than it was then.

    Though I have two bachelor’s, I found myself working in a foundry in NJ for 4 years (I’m also a metal sculptor); I was often gratefully surprised at the fair treatment and my ability to ascend eventually to Department Head. In fact, I was bid on by two departments because I’d become so valuable in nearly every aspect of the foundry – knowledge and skill. But I sure earned it.

    Knowing I was female (strong, but smallish & cute), I worked doubly hard in order to maintain that level of respect; And some of the work was truly brutal. I also negotiated raises when many (even men there) did not. I knew and proved my worth – as did these ladies. And I made no excuses.

    But make no mistake. There is a very thin line being walked by women workers not only in labor jobs like these, but in cosmopolitan areas as well (In which, I also have experience). There were times I had to smile at inappropriate comments or jokes, and bosses (even married) who made unwelcome passes. I had to intelligently rebuff these advances while CAREFULLY leaving their pride intact – No small feat – They had a lot of power and could wield it to punish you.

    In addition, I had one senior level boss, an irascible alcoholic, who cornered me in a mold room on a Saturday afternoon when we were working with a skeleton crew. He wrapped himself around my back and breathed words into my ear – I was frozen with fear. I had to put on a syrupy joking demeanor to extricate myself and still have a job the next day. And mentioning it to the front office had little effect – they wanted no involvement even knowing he had become a problem in general.

    You’re really on your own to a large extent even in this Century. And mind you – it took years for me to even breathe a peep (and only because I began to fear rape was a legitimate possibility) because I pride myself in being able to handle my own problems and detest tattlers. But that can be a weakness, I see now.

    BUT: In the back of my mind, I knew if I ever needed legitimate intervention, the courts would have my back. I wouldn’t be out on the street without a cent. Because women before me fought for the current policies; That is a huge advancement.

    My point, after all of this detail, is that I became aware that the only barrier to the sexual harassment of women is the threat of legal action quietly looming in the background policy, thanks to women like those above. And contrary to Ms. Roti’s comment above, these things DO happen and do exist always beneath the surface or blatantly (I’m only 36 and have also lived in Chicago BTW).

    Unfortunately we must always comport ourselves with heightened awareness (men and women both), and be careful about how we are perceived by the other – but we do not have to do this with no help moving into the future.

    Thanks from the bottom of my heart to every woman and minority who had and has to stand up to humiliation and ill treatment far worse than I ever had and with fewer resources. But never forget that it will always be a small shadow that exists in the background as long as there are separate sexes and races – we will never be perfect as we are human. But thank you for making it so much better. Hopefully we can continue to do so. Thank you!

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