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04.23.08

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Phaedra

Fighter: Lois Jenson wouldn't give up, and the result was a landmark class-action sexual-harassment suit.

Fighting Back

Lois Jenson took on harassment in the
mines and won

By Richard von Busack


DO A GOOGLE search with the word "lawsuit." Combine "lawsuit" with the word "frivolous": 1.2 million hits. Now do it with "successful": 688,000. You can just about see the odds right there of using the courts for help. Lois Jenson knows about the law's delay personally, since she is the Jenson of Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, the first class-action sexual-harassment suit. It took Jenson and her colleagues 15 long years of litigation to persuade one company to recognize its federal obligations to protect the women in its workforce. On April 30 at 6pm at the San Jose City College's Drama Theater, the labor studies department and the Reel Work Film Festival is bringing several local dignitaries and a real-life hero to speak. Free for the viewing this night is the film based on Jenson's case, North Country.

"I had a right to work," Jenson told me via phone from her home in north Minnesota, "and I was not out for retaliation, or to humiliate anyone. I just wanted a sexual-harassment policy at work, and to get the info flowing. I was working with 1,200 men, and they weren't all causing trouble. Not even 600 of them were. 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." In the name of compression and a strong main character, Jenson's name was changed and the case simplified in North Country. Jenson loves the film, saying, "I've watched it about 20 times." North Country is the first really good look at a remote part of America, and the titanic kind of work done there. It shows you the canyon-size open-pit mines, the trucks as big as apartment houses, the dizzying catwalks, the filthy iron dust and the tremendous noise. Thereon plays "Josey Aimes," one of the first women in the taconite mines. Like Jenson, Aimes is a single mother who wanted a union job that paid three times the local wages.

What happened to the real-life Jenson was even worse than what Aimes goes through. You do get a sense of the incidents in the film. Jenson and her female co-workers at Eveleth had their lockers broken into, and their street clothes repeatedly ejaculated upon. They were taunted with dildos and smeared with grease. The famous scene in North Country of a female worker trapped in a knocked-over port-a-potty happened in real life: not once, but twice. Sexual harassment is bad enough in a clerical setting, but it's worse in heavy industry where distractions can cost you your life. Jenson got through it at last. Slowly but surely, she's today writing her own account of the landmark case. Though she's more famous in legal circles than elsewhere, Lois Jenson made the work world safer for women, such as the female trucker I heard of who had as her motto: "They don't want to take your job. They want one of their own."

(Read an interview with Lois Jenson)


LOIS JENSON appears at a screening of NORTH COUNTRY, sponsored by the San Jose City College Labor Studies Department, Wednesday (April 30) at 6pm at 2100 Moorpark Ave., San Jose. Free. Jenson also appears at a screening at CSUMB in Seaside on Monday (April 28) at 7pm. The Reel Work May Day Labor Film Festival takes place April 25–May 11 in Santa Cruz. See www.reelwork.org for details.


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