The Good Ol' Miners Club

A harassment suit filed by the first women to work in northern Minnesota's taconite mines set a precedent for suits over hostile work environments. But nearly 16 years after they went to court, the plaintiffs still haven't recouped a penny.

Before phrases like "sexual harassment" and "workplace diversity" were part of everyday vernacular, Lois Jenson was a 27-year-old single mother earning $1.36 an hour as a bank teller. She'd moved to the Twin Cities in 1969, but decided to return to northern Minnesota in the early '70s to raise her son in small-town comfort. In 1975, financial salvation seemed at hand when Jenson, along with three other single mothers, was offered a job at Eveleth Taconite. Not only would the women quadruple their earnings, but for the first time in their lives, they were eligible for health insurance and pension plans.

Eveleth Taconite is one of seven mines on Minnesota's Iron Range. Founded in 1965 by the Ford Motor Co. and Cleveland-based Ogelbay-Norton, the mine was staffed exclusively by men for its first decade of operation. But in the '70s, under federal pressure to diversify, Eveleth found itself in a discrimination suit filed by two women the company had refused to hire. As a result, a court ordered the company to hire at least four women--one of them Jenson.

If the four had any illusions about the company's largesse, says Jenson, management immediately set them straight. "They told us that the four of us were hired specifically because we were heads of households," says Jenson. "They said it would be less traumatic on the men." Within 13 years, Jenson and 20 other women miners filed a sexual harassment suit against Eveleth Taconite and its steel-workers union. It was the first case in the nation to be filed as a "class-action hostile work environment" suit.

"It was an unusual move," says University of Minnesota labor-law professor Laura Cooper. Up until then, she explains, sexual harassment cases came in two types: One was the quid-pro-quo scenario, in which--for example--a supervisor tells an employee that she'll lose her job if she doesn't comply with sexual demands. The other was the "hostile work environment" scenario, but the label was applied only to an individual woman's experience in a specific workplace. The Eveleth case, Cooper explains, marked the first time a judge had determined that the harassment experienced by women employees under the same roof was so similar that they could file as a class. The motion made legal history, paving the way for such cases as the suit that female factory workers in Normal, Illinois, are currently pressing against Mitsubishi.

But according to Jenson and the other plaintiffs, the cost of breaking new ground was dear. They claim that years of being sexually harassed by their male co-workers ruined their mental, emotional, and physical health. And when they turned to the courts for relief, the women maintain that instead, they were victimized again, this time by the judicial system.

Jenson can trace the harassment she experienced at Eveleth back to her first day of work. "I was verbally assaulted. Men said things like, 'Why don't you go back home where you belong' and accused us of taking jobs away from men," she recalls. Rather than acclimating themselves to the changing workforce, says Jenson, the men began to wage war. It wasn't long before porn magazines showed up on job sites, sexually suggestive graffiti began to cover plant walls--often naming specific female employees--and supervisors' office walls began to sport dirty cartoons and pinup calendars. Matters escalated, says Jenson, when the company experienced a hiring boom in 1978. "The workforce went from 600 to 1,200, and everywhere you looked there were nude calendars and graffiti."

Initially, the women tried to ignore the catcalls and pornography. "They had bets going to see how long we'd last, some of them purposely made it as difficult as they could," says Jenson. But to her dismay, the harassment escalated. According to the lawsuit, female miners routinely received obscene phone calls at home, were grabbed in the crotch or buttocks, addressed as "bitches" and "cunts," and threatened with rape. In reaction to the hostility, says Jenson, the women began arming themselves with Mace and knives. "We were starting to feel how dangerous it was out there. And not just for physical harm, but [maybe] death."

Attempts to get management to intervene were useless, Jenson says, as many of the harassers were foremen and supervisors. Frustrated, she went in search of help. "I went to the union president in 1981, but they didn't want to deal with the women's issues," she says. "It was always the woman's fault, no matter what it was." Jensen next enlisted the aid of a well-respected union activist and fellow miner, Patricia Kosmach. But despite her pull, Kosmach was also unable to persuade their union, United Steel Workers Local 6860, to intercede on behalf of its female members. In fact, former union President Stanley Daniels would later testify in court that he thought the women's complaints "were a bunch of B.S."

By now, the women's health had begun to suffer. Jenson started getting ill with alarming frequency in 1976, and by 1978 she had been hospitalized. Many others were experiencing anxiety attacks, insomnia, depression, migraines, and a host of other stress-related conditions. Meanwhile, Kosmach's health was failing rapidly, and she would soon be diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.

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