A First Sex-Harassment Case Still Awaits Its Finale after Winning a Ground-Breaking, Sexual-Harassment Lawsuit against Their Employer, Women Miners Fight for Compensation

Article excerpt

Eveleth, Minn., doesn't seem like the kind of place that could foment a revolution.

A placid town of 4,000 on northern Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range, it is a place where people greet each other by the first name in the Miners National Bank, where the strongest passions are reserved for hockey and hunting, and where nearly everyone works at the same place - Eveleth Mines, an erector-set of chutes and shafts on the outskirts of town.

Yet a lawsuit filed by a group of women miners 10 years ago has, in fact, helped launch a revolution in the burgeoning area of sexual- harassment law. It was the first in the nation to be certified as a class-action "hostile-work environment" suit - the forerunner of later high-profile legal actions like the sex-discrimination case against Mitsubishi Corp. in 1997. Now, 23 years after the women of Eveleth Mines first complained of unfair treatment, the final phase of their case is reaching its denouement in a courtroom here - and will likely once again carry important symbolic implications. While the women won their suit more than five years ago, damage awards in the case continue to be disputed. After the original verdict, a semi-retired judge acting as an arbiter concluded the women were "paranoid" and "puritanical." He awarded each $11,000 - far short of the average $250,000 in sexual-harassment cases. This week, a federal jury in Minneapolis is reconsidering how much money each of the 15 women will get. Some analysts see it as an opportunity to correct a grave injustice. Others say the case has outlived its usefulness. Either way, most agree that because of the case, courts will now be more careful about how they punish employers that ignore or condone a "hostile work environment." "When you look at this case, it's obvious that our society hasn't figured out this {issue of sexual harassment} yet," says Laura Cooper, a labor-law professor at the University of Minnesota. The roots of the dispute date back to the early 1970s, when bell bottoms were in style the first time, sexual harassment wasn't yet a legal issue, but another movement, feminism, was beginning to leave an imprint. At the time, two Eveleth women filed a discrimination suit against the owners of the local mine, and a court ordered them to hire at least four female workers. One of them was Lois Jenson, who grew up on the Mesabi Range, a high plateau 60 miles northwest of the port city of Duluth, on Lake Superior. For most of this century, mining the area's ore - much of it refined into taconite pellets and shipped through the Great Lakes - has sustained the region's economy. …