MORE

The Good Ol' Miners Club

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.

It wasn't until her direct supervisor began stalking her that Jenson snapped. "He got obsessed with her," explains attorney Jean Boler, who represented the women in their 1988 class-action suit against Eveleth. "And he started forcing unwanted attentions on her." In 1984, before they retained Boler's firm, Jenson and Kosmach took their complaint to the state Department of Human Rights. The agency tried to negotiate a minor settlement for Jenson and an anti-sexual harassment policy for the mine, says Boler, but "it wasn't a concession [Eveleth] was going to make." The next stop was the Attorney General's office where the case languished for a few more years. Finally, in October 1988, Boler filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 21 women miners. Named in the suit were Ogelbay-Norton, Rouge Steel Co., Stelco Inc., AK Steel Corp.--collectively known as Eveleth Mines--and Local 6860 of the United Steel Workers.

Shortly after the suit was filed, Jenson and Kosmach left work on disability. In 1993, U.S. District Courts ruled that conditions at the mine constituted a hostile work environment and ordered the company to institute a sexual harassment policy. In 1995, the case was transferred to a court in Duluth, where Magistrate Patrick McNulty was to determine the extent of the emotional, financial and physical damage the women had suffered, and how big an award they should receive. By this time, Kosmach had died and McNulty dismissed her claim, ruling that it couldn't survive her death. Meanwhile, says Jenson, the women were about to be traumatized again. "It was absolutely horrendous," she recalls.

The magistrate had given the defense a wide berth, allowing Eveleth to hire psychiatrists to testify that the women were mentally ill before they were hired by the mining company, a common defense tactic in such cases. During the trial, the women were asked how old they were when they'd begun using birth control, whether they'd had abortions, if their husbands had sexual problems or were unfaithful, and if their children had developmental problems. Not only were they grilled about their personal lives, says Boler, but they were forced to produce all of their medical records and, in some instances, financial records as well. "It was in this part of the process that many of the women got challenged about whether or not this was a good thing to do, to oppose the company," says Boler. For four, the answer was a clear no; they opted out.

In March of '96, in a 416-page report, McNulty weighed in on the side of the defense. He concluded that since neither the plaintiffs' nor the defense's psychiatric experts could prove that the women's illnesses were caused by the men's actions, he would err on the side of caution. The remaining 16 women would be paid damages for ranging from $2,500 to $25,000--far below the national average of $250,000 typically awarded victims of sexual harassment. In addition, says Boler, the magistrate refused to award punitive damages which, in essence, would have held company management accountable for the work environment. "When McNulty issued his report," she fumes, "the focus was really on all the other things that had happened in these women's lives rather than what happened at the mine."

Not surprising, Faegre & Benson attorney David Goldstein, who represented Eveleth, disagrees. "All of the psychiatrists, both defense and plaintiff, testified that you can't determine causation"--what started the trauma--he says. In a court of law, when damages are assessed, a triggering event must be identified, which Goldstein says didn't happen.

Additionally, Goldstein agrees that some of the men's behavior was less than sterling, but he argues that it's unrealistic for anyone to hold a company liable for workplace conditions of 20 years ago. "The company's stance has always been that in the '70s and early '80s some things have happened that shouldn't have," he says. "But every time a woman complained, the management made a good faith effort to rectify the situation."

Goldstein's admissions don't do anything for Boler, who says the women have been cheated of settlements they are entitled to. Since a case can't be appealed on the grounds that the judge or jury was stingy, Boler has filed an appeal objecting to the magistrate's treatment of expert testimony and the exclusion of punitive damages. Boler and Professor Cooper are now awaiting a date for that hearing and worrying about how the outcome of this case will affect future cases. If the decision stands, says Cooper, few women can expect to prevail in future sexual harassment suits. "You'd have to have a nearly flawless mental health history, and the horrible truth is that a large percent of women in our communities have experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape."  

Regardless of the appeal's outcome, at 49, Jenson has already lost 10 years that should have been the most economically productive of her life. "My doctors told me that I'll probably never work again," she says. And while she concedes that she and her co-workers have advanced the cause of equal opportunities for women, she never pictured herself a crusader: "I never planned to go out there in the first place. But at that time, the only alternative I had was going back on welfare."


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >