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04.23.08

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Lois Jenson

Metro's Exclusive Interview


Lois Jenson is coming to San Jose City College on April 30 at 6pm in connection with the Bay Area–wide Reel Work Film Festival. There will be a discussion and a screening of North Country at the college's drama theater. The event, presented by the Labor Studios program, is free. Jenson sounds like a different person than the ex-miner described at the end of Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler.

Jenson and her fellow litigants won the case (Jenson v. Eveleth Mines), the first class-action suit against sexual harassment. But nine years ago, Jenson's health was in ruins from post-traumatic stress syndrome and the medication she took for it. At the time of the release of the fictionalized version of her story, North Country, released in 2005, Jenson was still frail, according to some accounts.

Her voice now is strong and clear, and she takes understandable pride in the success of a case that finally made the corporate world enforce its sexual harassment policies. Until last fall, Jenson has been on speaking tours to discuss how she helped make history. In California alone, she's been to Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno. This is her first trip to the South Bay.

METRO: One thing you can't get from "North Country" is the sense of time passing. How long did you work at the taconite mines?

JENSON: Eighteen years.

And the case was in court for 15 years ...

Some cases can go on forever, and restitutions don't ever get paid. One famous case was the Love Canal case, where there were appeals after appeals after appeals. The lawyers keep hoping the other side will give up. Certainly, 15 years is not typical. A case like that takes a toll on your physical health. But where I've been at, these last two years have been especially happy.

The book claims that what you and the rest of the plaintiffs were looking for was something simple: for Eveleth Mines to institute an anti–sexual harassment policy.

Exactly. It wasn't about the money. We wanted a policy, and we wanted sexual harassment training. The third thing we wanted was a medical fund for the women who went through the harassment. We never got that. What we were asking for was the enforcement of a policy that was required by law. The dollar amounts are to get the courts to take it seriously, and it's also for the attorneys.

There's a quote in "Class Action" from one of your lawyers, Jane Lang. She says, "There are no winners in sexual harassment litigation."

I disagree with that. Lawyers tend to be very dramatic. To begin with, we were winners because we won the trial. Because the insurance company settled, they were winners also. They didn't have to fork out what they might have had to do. The mining corporation has new owners, but it's getting along fine. We got respect and dignity for the workers. It was a win-win situation. I don't completely agree with the book Class Action. It's not totally factual, and some of the situations are made up. The book was a little rushed, and you shouldn't rush history. We all needed a little time to heal after that court case. The whole time we were in court, we had no personal life. We didn't have much of an opportunity to celebrate afterwards either. We didn't really pop champagne and get drunk and rowdy when it was over.

Are you working on a book yourself?

I'm taking notes for one, but I'm taking it slow. I'm protecting my health. Writing about what happened brings it all back. I might work on my journal for an hour a day, but if it gets up to four hours a day, I back off. I'm not in a rush.

You still live in the general vicinity of those mines. Do you hear what's going on now?

I hear through the union, and I do still live about 45 minutes away. There's zero tolerance for sexual harassment now, and they have a woman foreman up there. Of course, sexual harassment goes on throughout the United States, and it even crosses gender barriers. Education doesn't seem to make a difference, and then, of course, there's the matter of the world outside the United States. I hear from women who got it so much worse than I did. They're so fearful. There are so many people who don't understand. Some choose not to, and some don't like being called out on it. It's out there, period.

How did you get the strength to stick with this case?

I was in a good place when I started. I was a good worker, and I respected my foreman and co-workers, even the ones who created problems for me. I was working with 1,200 men, and they weren't all causing trouble. Not even 600 of them were. Most of the men there were civil, considerate and respectable. And I wanted to avoid stressing them. I didn't take it all personally. I could deal with it. In the union, there were men who protected my right to be on the job. I couldn't have gotten through the case without those who liked me and helped me. When I took this case on, I had to consider what it meant. I didn't want to embarrass my co-workers. Even the ones who humiliated me, I didn't want to humiliate back. When I was collecting evidence, I mentioned what I was doing, and I didn't snoop. I took notes and pictures. Men would hand me information, telling me, "You need this." It was the actions of a few—including women—who put my life in danger. The stress was high, and then the doctors pulled me off the job for post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to go back to work. You fall off the horse, you want to get back on. I had a right to work, and I was not out for retaliation, or to humiliate any one. I wanted a policy, and to get the info flowing.

What was missing from the movie "North Country"?

Oh, the lunchroom scene, that was completely fictional. It wouldn't have happened like that. Perhaps it's the movie's emphasis on the bad guys that seems so fictional. The film would have been more truthful if it showed how much support I had.

I heard that no one ever asks you what your favorite part of the movie was.

The ending, the happy ending. I love that in movies.


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