Today we are appalled by the story told in "North Country," a film that chronicles the first class-action lawsuit brought for sexual harassment. The suit was led by Lois Jenson, a single mother trying to provide for her family, who became one of the first women to work at Minnesota's Eveleth Mines.
The sexual harassment she and other women at Eveleth Mines suffered in the 1970s and '80s was, indeed, appalling. They endured lewd jokes, taunting and unwelcome physical contact. One female employee opened her locker to find sexual fluids on her personal belongings. Others experienced stalking and threatened assault outside of the workplace.
Jenson filed a complaint with the union, supervisors and management at the plant, and then with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. When Eveleth Taconite Co. refused to follow the state's request that it compensate Jenson for the harm she'd suffered, she went to court, fighting for fair treatment, a safe workplace and proper compensation. The case went to trial in federal court in St. Paul in 1992.
In 1993, the women (three at that point) were granted the first-ever class-action status for a sexual harassment lawsuit, meaning that they were able to band together to hire an attorney and have their case heard. After a long and difficult battle, they won. Fifteen women settled with Eveleth Mines in 1998 for an undisclosed sum.
Legal experts agree that because of the Eveleth case, for the first time employers across the country instituted policies to protect their employees from sexual harassment. Sexual harassment has not disappeared, but Jenson's legal case has made the workplace safer for women nationwide.
Jenson's case was important for another reason. It showed how critical it is that we as Americans, even the most powerless, have the right to go to court when we have been harmed. And especially, it showed how vital the right to file class-action lawsuits can be, particularly for the preservation and enforcement of civil rights.
Today these rights are under attack by America's biggest corporations. This year, for example, after enormous pressure from the world's biggest industries, Congress passed a law creating significant limits on class-action lawsuits.
This legislation was strongly opposed by the civil rights community. Thomas Henderson, chief counsel and senior deputy for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, testified: "Class actions are essential to the enforcement of the nation's civil rights laws. They are vitally important and are often the only means by which persons can challenge and obtain relief from systemic discrimination."
Not only did the complaints of Henderson and other civil rights leaders fall on deaf ears. But it now turns out that weakening the class-action system was only Step 1 for big business interests. Now they are seeking across-the-board limits on the rights of injured Americans to seek justice in our courts, making it harder to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable for the harm they cause. The fight to protect the civil justice system from these attacks goes on in state legislatures every day.
So as you head to the movies to see "North County," be grateful to Jenson and her co-workers for standing up to corporate abuse, and for using the legal system to fight it, making the workplace safer for you, your sisters, your mothers and your daughters.
But remember that the fight isn't over. All sorts of laws and policies that protect us are now at risk because big business wants to weaken or destroy our civil justice system.
We need to protect this fundamental aspect of American democracy, where the poorest and most vulnerable can challenge the largest corporation and hold it responsible for causing harm. We owe it to Jenson and the other women at Eveleth Mines who stood with her in court all those years.
Laurie Beacham is communications director and Amber Hard is staff director of the Center for Justice & Democracy.