Friday, June 3, 2016

Women From the North Country

“Class Action” by Clara Bingham and Laura L. Gansler, 2002

This is the book on which “North Country,” the movie starring Charlize Theron, was based.  It is a deeply disturbing look at gender discrimination at Eveleth Mining in the 1970s-1990s after the iron mining companies were first forced to hire women by the Federal EEOC in 1974.  This order happened at the height of the radical women’s liberation movement in the U.S. – it was not something the government came up with on their own.  Eveleth is a town on the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota, not far from Duluth, which is at the head of Lake Superior in the U.S.  Its mine produced taconite pellets – a lower-grade iron used for steel-making.  This book is far darker than the film due to its in-depth treatment of the miseries suffered by the claimants in the subsequent lawsuit, which went on for 10 years.  As one feminist put it, making ‘martyrs of feminist pioneers’ is not the best thing. 
The Film - Easier than the Book
Some thoughts.  Anyone who has worked in a working-class, blue collar environment knows there is always a group of men that look down on women and sexualize all women – and some play along with that happy horseshit.  They are never a majority and that was attested to in this case, in which male miners pointed out that the worst offenders were maybe 30 out of 700+ men.  Most of these 30 guys probably had no romantic relationships; were crude, insensitive, macho, dumb, odd, ugly, old or alcoholic, and desperate for female attention.  Their chances of long-range marriages or girlfriends are slim to none.  The real problem was the majority of the other miners – and even the union - did not come to the women’s aid.   This is a betrayal of labor solidarity. 

This first group of clueless men are the ones really exposed in this book.  For years the women endure sexist graffiti, posters and pictures; sexual and physical contact; insulting statements, sexist verbal and practical jokes; hostile threats, ‘shunning,’ aggressive mistreatment, even attempts at physical harm – to the point that they avoid going to the bathroom  or certain locations and  carry weapons in their boots.  This activity was coming from foreman, fellow workers, lead workers and white-collar managers.  Yet many are afraid to complain too much for fear of losing their jobs or alienating their co-workers.  They put up with the abuse to survive.  In the lawsuit, this is of course used against them.

Some of the symptoms displayed by rape victims occurred among the mine women too – which shows what a constant level of sexual harassment can do.

What is predictable is that the company – Eveleth Mines, owned by a consortium managed by  Oglebay Norton based in Cleveland Ohio - ignored the few complaints or did the minimum to rectify the situation.  To top it off, Local 6860 of the Steelworkers (USWA), did little to nothing about the issue and ultimately blocks with the company when the legal action starts.  It chooses to stand by the sexist miners over their own female members.  Neither the union nor the company wanted a policy against sexual harassment, and only due to the lawsuit does one eventually come about.   The union claimed that no union member could testify or betray another union member to the company, which is certainly a good policy. But unless the union itself took action internally, this justified a minority being abused.

The USW itself was behind the economic and social curve, as U.S. capitalism brought 12 million women workers into the workforce by 1980.  Instead of adjusting to the growth in the working-class, the union attempted to ignore it – much as unions initially tried to not organize immigrant workers in a later period.  

What is also predictable is that the Minnesota Dept of Human Rights / Attorney General’s office dropped action against Eveleth Mines, bowing to pressure from its own Democratic Governor Perpich, a Ranger.  Democratic politicians – the real fighters for women’s rights - after the fact!  Also predictable is that the local paper, the Mesabi Daily News, along with the rest of the Minnesota press, ignored the story until the Wall Street Journal made it national news.

This book focuses on the personal stories of the female miners, who had had hard lives and were poverty-stricken before getting the high-paying union mining jobs at Eveleth.    It tracks what happened to them after the suit is filed, even while they are still working, focusing on the lead plaintiffs Lois Jenson and Pat Kosmach.  Several suffer from PTSD, most suffer from isolation and they all had various detrimental effects.  A class action on their behalf was ultimately filed by an aggressive pro-employee firm in Minneapolis, Sprenger & Lang in 1988. 

This is also a legal story about the history of gender discrimination law in the U.S.  This lawsuit – “Jenson et al. v Eveleth” – was the first successful certified class action based on a sexist ‘hostile work environment’ theory.  In the Appeal, it set a precedent for limiting abusive discovery in cases involving sexual issues.  That Appeal set another precedent by showing that the burden of proof in these cases falls on the defense, not the claimants.  Yet it once again highlights the defense tactic of painting claimants as ‘nuts and sluts’ – similar to that used in rape cases.   Notably the lead trial and deposition attorney for Eveleth Mines, who dragged each female class member through the mud, was a woman, Mary Stumo, counsel at Faegre & Benson a Minneapolis law firm.  No ‘sisterhood’ here.  Wonder how long some upper-middle class female lawyers would last in a sexist environment?  We’ll never find out...

The capitalist legal system does not show up well.  “Justice” takes too long.  It took 1 year for the state discrimination claim, 5 years for the class action certification, 3 more years for the award decision and 2 more years for the Appeal on the award.  It was incredibly expensive – attorney bills running into the millions of dollars.  And the courts varied in quality.  After the successful class certification stage of the case, an elderly, red-nosed magistrate in bed with the corporate figures in Duluth presided over the ‘damages’ phase of the trial - and ultimately sided with the firm.   He allowed abuses of discovery and offered tiny amounts as awards.  He discounted all expert witnesses in psychology and even falls asleep on the bench. 

At the end, few who knew how this would proceed would even start, given the time, energy and emotional stress.  If it wasn’t for persevering women and lawyers, this mess would have gone nowhere.  

What is the class angle on this?  Obviously sexism functions just like racism or ethnic hostility to break up the working class.  It allows the worst, most conservative sector of the class to internally dominate. Many male miners were afraid that ‘women’ would take their jobs, as unemployment and layoffs are a constant feature of mining life.  Yet before they were hired, many of these women were mostly living alone in poverty and raising children.  The discriminatory sub-text was that women should only work low-paying jobs on the Range as retail clerks, waitresses, secretaries or bank tellers and that all high-paying jobs would go to men.

The role of the union was also sad.  The Local’s leaders claimed that the lawsuit would bankrupt the union and lead to the men being laid-off.  Yet the Union was actually named not as a defendant but as a third-party, since the result of the trial might change the union contract.  They were brought in on a technicality.  The company HR department head thought that women should never work in a mine in the first place.  The corporate headquarters in Cleveland refused to settle, refused to institute a real policy against sexual harassment, and in the end spent much more money than they ever thought.  These were the obdurate forces arrayed against 18-30+ women.

Another thought.  As a Minnesotan, I am very familiar with the Range. I lived in Ely as a young boy and return there often.  My mother’s father was a Finn miner who got injured and started a bar with his tiny ‘workers compensation’ money, in order to get out of the mines.  I attended the 1977 USW strike there and knew people who worked as miners around Virginia.  It is a very close ‘frontier’ community, where you can live there for 30 years and still be considered an outsider.  Its chief benefits are the beautiful woods and lakes, but the isolation can also kill – by alcohol or drugs. 

The ‘red’ Finns and ‘black’ Eastern Europeans that settled there were ostracized by the corporations and the more conservative ‘white’ Swedes and Norwegians.  Gus Hall(berg), former leader of the Communist Party, came from there and one of his relatives even worked at Eveleth at the time of this book.  It was and still can be a center of labor struggle, from the 1907 strike led by Mother Jones’ and the Western Federation of Miners – which was 25% Finns - to the 1916 IWW strike that was influenced by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.  Note the involvement of women labor leaders.  But in 1974 that had changed.

What this struggle reveals again is that the labor movement has to return to its roots and not pretend it has a seat at the bosses’ table or is a ‘club’ protecting only SOME of its members.  A union protecting its own members would have cut this legal nightmare short.  Unionization of all women would do the same.

 Also see below for reviews on books about women's oppression, especially "Missoula." 

And I bought it at Chapman Street Books in Ely, Mn.
Red Frog
June 3, 2016

No comments: