The success of Senator Al Franken’s anti-rape amendment is one step towards greater culpability for sexual assault and sexual harassment on the job. This week’s Feministory is another case involving labor, sexual harassment, and Minnesota: the first sexual harassment class action lawsuit.
In 1974, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission required steel companies to set aside 20% of their jobs for women and minority men. Lois Jenson, a single mother of two on welfare was hired at the Eveleth iron mine, located 60 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota. Immediately she and the other female workers endured incredible harassment on the job, including groping, incessant abusive language, threats, and intimidation.
Jenson worked for nine years under these atrocious conditions and was stalked by one of her supervisors. Eventually, after the plant’s refusal to intervene and a particularly jarring incident with one of her supervisors, Jenson couldn’t take it and filed a formal grievance against Eveleth, sending her complaint to the Minnesota Human Rights Department. But when Eveleth refused to pay her the $11,000 in damages they were requested to, it was only the start of Jenson’s 14-year nightmare of a legal battle.
Once Jenson had found a lawyer (she called 50 before Paul Sprenger took it in 1988), the charge was given class action status. This was the first class action suit for sexual harassment. Only two other women joined the lawsuit at first; other workers were afraid of the repercussions at their job. A 1992 liability trial in St. Paul found that Eveleth should have prevented the abuse in the mine, and made them establish a sexual harassment policy. More women joined the case to claim damages.
For the litigation trial, which determined how much money the women would receive, the appointed “special master” Patrick McNulty, a retired judge, gave Eveleth mines’s lawyers permission to obtain the women’s medical records and subjected the women to testify in great detail their personal and sexual histories on the stand. The result was a 416-page report that histrionic and published the women’s personal history and called them “histrionic,” and granted them a mere $10,000. Thankfully the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals (the appeals court for many Midwest states) took on the case and the women were granted a new trial with a jury. In 1998, Eveleth Mines finally settled with the women for a total of $3.5 million.
Although the women did win their case and it held great historic significance, it came at a high price. The three trials on top of their stressful working environment strained the women and their lawyers physically, emotionally, and financially.
Women Miners Dee Sabin, Cherie Averill Manner, Lois Jenson, Gloria Huseby, Sue Ann Succio, Judy Henry, Nan Duchene, and former Steelworker District 11 Director David Foster in 2006, from UMD
Jenson’s story was made into the 2005 movie North Country starring Charlize Theron (who played a composite character of the female miners) directed by Niki Caro (who wrote and directed Whale Rider). The movie’s been criticized for its Hollywood ending, but I’m glad there was a movie made about the story at all and despite its Lifetime-esque moments, it hopefully inspires viewers to read further on the case.
In her article, “Revisiting North Country,” Jennifer at sexualharassmentsupport.org demonstrates the other important things Jenson vs. Eveleth represented. That humiliating litigation trial that asked women to detail their personal and sexual history is what’s known as a “discovery process,” popular in sexual harassment suits, but when 8th Circuit Court criticized Eveleth’s lawyers for doing so and appealed, it set a precedent for future cases. The court also acknowledged that “the treatment of sexual harassment plaintiffs during the litigation process can, in of itself, cause psychological damage and that this should be factored into damages awards if they win a suit,” another win for sexual harassment defendants.
In a 2006 Guardianpiece, Jenson said that when she took the job at Eveleth, it was “really was about getting a better paying job with benefits. I didn’t go there to bring up issues. I just wanted to make a decent life for my family.” She and her fellow miners didn’t set out to change the laws on sexual harassment, but because of circumstances had no other choice. “This was about sexual harassment and being able to go to work knowing you were going to come home safely, but also that you could go to work knowing that you would not be grabbed or raped, or have these verbal abuses.”
For further reading check out :
Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham
Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines [sexualharassmentsupport.org]