Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Class Action" --Reading for Pleasure Wednesday...

Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time -- whom I read very regularly -- came up with the brilliant idea of posting about what we are reading for pleasure.

I've been reading "Class Action" by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. It is the story that inspired the movie "North Country"... although, the movie doesn't do the book justice.. I'll save that for another post.

For those of you who have missed the thesis of the movie -- in 1975 the taconite mines (a kind of iron) in Eveleth, MN were required to start hiring women. Since jobs in the mines were dirty "men's work", they also paid significantly more than the usual jobs available to women in 1975. Combined with good benefits, miner's salaries were enough to support a family on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. Competition for these jobs was pretty intense and men hired in the mine tended to stay with the company because there weren't many other jobs in the area. When the women were hired, the general consensus among the men was that the mine was 'no place for a woman' and/or that the women were taking jobs away from a man who needed it to support their families... (the fact that most of the women who applied WERE sole support for their family was ignored by these guys).

The women hired in the Eveleth mine were subjected to a very high level of sexual harrassment. It took every imaginable form, from crude/pornographic materials in common areas, crude graffiti, casual sexual comments to outright assault and stalking. When women managed to get the courage to complain, their complaints were ignored both by the plant management and the union. Eventually, after an EEOC complaint fell apart, three women started a private lawsuit against the company and the union. The book is the story of the women working in the plant, their sexual harrassment and the story of the legal proceedings.

Bingham and Gansler write more in the style of reporting a news story than telling the story as a story itself. At first this bothered me, it seemed to be treating sexual harrassment in a very cold way. By the end of the book I'm coming to see how necessary their tone is.. and I'm kind of grateful for their level of detachment, as the story is so difficult.

I am simply amazed that all of this sexual violence was happening in the state where I grew up, while I was growing up. I can't imagine such behavior being considered acceptable by the time I got my first job at McDonalds in 1986. Less than 200 miles from me, women were being tortured (I have no stronger word -- and I think the harrassment was bad enough to be called torture) when they went to work. It also boggles my mind that they really had no other options, although I know that to be true. The women of the Eveleth mine were so determined to be independent and support themselves and their children that they endured regular and systematic sexual abuse at the hands of their co-workers.

What bothers me most about the story is the fact that some of the men and women in the mine didn't see anything wrong with the non-physical harrassment. Many didn't even see it as wrong when they were asked, 'would you want your wife or daughter exposed to this environment' --- they'd say 'no, of course not' and then go on to say that having porn inside the door of a locker the female miners needed to access on a regular basis was an acceptable situation. Sure, they'd say that any level of unwanted touching was wrong, but not that setting a hostile work enviornment is wrong.

I am also amazed at the lawyers involved in this case. The main lawyers for the mine/union were quite ruthless in the way they treated the women. I realize they were doing their jobs -- but, as an ethicist, I don't see that as an excuse for further dehumanizing (and I don't use that word lightly) the women bringing the suit. The lawyers for the plaintiffs were also amazing, but in exactly the opposite way... their patience and legal smarts were the only hope the women had. They became involved in the lives of these women and set legal precedents that will help women far into the future.

I have to say that the fact that I can go to work without this kind of enviornment AND make a decent living is something I'm not going to take for granted. The fact that my department is 50% female, and the women have seniority is also a good thing... along with the fact that my amazing dean is a woman.

I'm going to finish the book today --- and then I'll start something fiction -- and probably more fun... it couldn't get much worse :).


Dr. Crazy said...

Fantastic post! I've got to say, though, that I probably won't read the book. Too depressing. But I'm so glad that you're participating in this! It's so interesting to see what everybody's reading!

T-Mac said...

I'll add it to the huge list of books to read!