OCTOBER 1997 · VOLUME 18 · NUMBER 10
L A B O R
SEXUAL HARASSMENT WAS RAMPANT AND VICIOUS, management organized trips to strip joints and women who sought to complain about working conditions risked physical assault. These are among the shocking revelations contained in documents filed in a Peoria, Illinois federal court in September by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in connection with its sexual harassment case against Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America (Mitsubishi).
The EEOC's filings came in response to a motion by Mitsubishi for partial summary judgment in what one EEOC official has called the largest sexual harassment case in U.S. history. The company argued that the alleged harassing incidents were isolated and not part of a "pattern and practice" for which the company should be held liable.
Mitsubishi's basic position, according to spokesperson Gael O'Brien, is that it "does not deny that sexual harassment occurred at its Normal, Illinois assembly plant. However, when it received complaints, the company has promptly and thoroughly investigated them and has terminated, demoted or otherwise disciplined employees for sexual harassment."
But the EEOC's filing, which details the extent of problems at the company's Normal facility, asserts that Mitsubishi "creat[ed] and tolerat[ed] a sexually hostile and abusive work environment. The magnitude and scope of sexual and sex-based harassment at Mitsubishi, and the degree of managerial complicity therein, are unprecedented."
The EEOC is aggressively pursuing its case against the company whose cultural ethos, it says in court filings, encouraged U.S. managers to "engage in a pattern and practice of sex-based discrimination which poisoned the atmosphere of employment" at its Normal, Illinois production plant.
The EEOC's investigation "suggests that -- whether measured by the number of victims or the potential for money damages -- this could become the largest sexual harassment case ever prosecuted in the history of Title VII" of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion, says Chicago District Director John P. Rowe.
"Very large amounts of money are going to be involved," says Paul Igasaki, EEOC vice chair. "This case is going to show that sexual harassment in the workplace is bad for the 'bottom line.'"
"CHESTER THE MOLESTER"
THE EEOC'S CASE describes the creation of a "working environment conducive to sexual harassment" which began at Mitsubishi at the time of hire, when female employees were oriented towards Japanese culture by being told that the Japanese did not believe women should work in factories and that they should not make eye contact with Japanese managers. As part of their orientation, the EEOC contends, new employees were taken on a tour of the Normal plant. During such tours women were routinely subjected to catcalls, whistling, screaming and howling. In a statement summarizing its response to the EEOC filings, Mitsubishi denies that Japanese management participated in or condoned sexual harassment. No name of any Japanese executive or employee is listed as an alleged harasser in EEOC court filings, Mitsubishi asserts. "At no time has the EEOC notified the company that they had any reason to believe any Japanese executive or employee was involved in alleged harassment," the company says in its statement.
Illinois management personnel (including line supervisors) often received training in Japan. Those trips included visits to "audience participation" bars where members of the audience engaged in sexual acts with prostitutes on stage. The result of this kind of "orientation" was a "hyper-sexualized" work place back in Normal, Illinois, according to the EEOC. Women there were allegedly subjected to a barrage of unwelcome physical and verbal abuse, obscene graffiti in public and private areas of the plant (including on the cars as they came down the line), and physical incidents where men exposed themselves to women or grabbed the women workers' breasts. Common forms of "horseplay" allegedly included taping notes on women's backs which read "Blow up Doll," "Sexually overactive" or "Sperm bank, deposit here," with an arrow pointing towards the women's buttocks.
Long-term employees and managers also regularly visited strip joints outside the conservative Normal area, according to the EEOC, and organized large-scale sex parties in area hotels which included buffet dinners, kegs of beer and strippers. Pornographic pictures from the parties were often circulated on the plant floor. One Unit Group Leader is quoted in EEOC filings as saying it was "the same as guys coming in after a hunting trip and showing pictures of the deer." EEOC claims that the sex parties began in 1992 and, although held at local motels, were organized by company personnel on company time -- and at the behest of supervisors from Japan. The EEOC alleges in its filings that the sex parties were organized "at the request of Japanese [Technical Advisers] and Coordinators."
Mitsubishi says in its statement that "the EEOC inaccurately portrays the company as legally liable for parties involving employees during off hours not at the plant." The company says, "The EEOC knows that no evidence shows that the company knew about these parties, funded the parties or that any supervisor above a Unit Group Leader attended the parties, which were confined to one department of approximately 50 employees."
EEOC investigators claim that the environment at Mitsubishi "became frightening and dangerous," especially for women who lodged complaints. Male associates used threatening words and actions against women, particularly those who complained of sexual harassment. One woman was accosted by two men in the plant who taped her hands and feet to a cart and pushed it up and down the aisles while people laughed. In another case, a male associate forcibly cut the hair of a female worker. Women were subjected to threatening phone calls, the threat of rape and stalking and assaults off work.
Degrading behavior was not limited to production line supervisors. According to the EEOC's investigation, the company doctor was notorious for making anti-female remarks. One employee recalled him telling her, "You have the 3 F's against you -- you're fat, female and forty."
Many of the sexual harassment victims did not complain because it was their supervisors who were doing the harassing, the EEOC alleges. Many supervisors considered new employees fair game, and made unwanted sexual advances with impunity. One supervisor allegedly told a new female hire that "she belonged to him" during her probationary period, and retaliated against her when she rebuked his sexual advances. Another supervisor's sexual harassment of new female employees allegedly earned him the nickname: "Chester the molester." These were the same supervisors to whom, under the company's sexual harassment policy, women were supposed to complain.
The next step in Mitsubishi's policy was to complain to the company's Employee Relations Department. But the EEOC alleges that Employee Relations managers typically responded with skepticism, indifference or outright hostility, and an inability or unwillingness to address the problem. In those instances where males were found by the company to have harassed females, the company's standard "disciplinary" measure was allegedly to require the harasser to watch a 30-minute sexual harassment video and to place a memo in the person's file which usually did not contain a finding of harassment. Watching the sexual harassment video allegedly became a company-wide joke, a badge of honor.
In one case, the Employee Relations Department allegedly investigated a complaint that a branch manager assaulted an ill woman while driving her home and later continued to harass her. After corroborating her complaints, the Employee Relations Department recommended that the harasser be removed from any supervisory position, but the recommendation was ignored and the harasser remained as branch manager.
Inaction and a lack of confidentiality allegedly deterred many women who feared retaliation and ostracism from complaining about harassment through prescribed channels. EEOC allegations lend credence to this claim. When one victim dared to complain to the EEOC, the agency alleges Mitsubishi permitted defamatory statements to be posted on bulletin boards and advised employees that the complaints were "vicious lies."
The EEOC claims in its court filing that Mitsubishi made such a mess of things because "the company did not have adequate policies and procedures in place to deter harassment." By the time EEOC filed its Commissioner's Charge in April 1994, a total of only three associates had been fired for sexual harassment, though the EEOC claims that "the vast majority of the victims in this case did complain about their harassment. Only in 1995 and 1996, with EEOC and the media breathing down its back, did Mitsubishi pick up the disciplinary pace."
Mitsubishi denies the claims that it failed to properly investigate and act on sexual harassment charges. "The EEOC has chosen to ignore in its filings and public comments that it has in its possession thorough investigator memoranda provided by the company detailing the investigations conducted of individual complaints and the disciplinary actions, including terminations, that resulted," the company asserts in its statement.
The company also asserts that the EEOC is making unrealistic demands of the company. The agency's purported belief that the company had notice of each individual incident of harassment, Mitsubishi contends in its statement, "ignores the reality of an assembly line which employs approximately 4,000 people on two shifts, along more than 11 miles of line."
DENIALS AND A PLEA FOR TIME
The day after the EEOC filed suit, Mitsubishi sent a letter signed by company Chair Tsuneo Ohinouye and President Takahisa Komoto to employees stating that its response to the EEOC's allegations was a "complete and absolute denial" of the Commission's sexual harassment allegations. Mitsubishi began to argue publicly that the government could not prove a broad "pattern" of harassment and that the focus of the case should be on individual claims. A week later, Gary Schultz, Mitsubishi's general counsel and director of public relations, summoned all of Mitsubishi's employees to a series of plant-wide meetings to rally support for the company, encouraging employees to use phone banks set up at the plant to call their congresspersons, and to organize a march on the EEOC.
At the same time, according to the EEOC, tensions in the plant grew. Women quickly learned of graffiti in one of the men's rooms: "If a fucking cunt causes me to lose my job, I'm going on a cunt hunt." A poster circulating around the plant said: "Sexual harassment would not be reported to the supervisor but it will be graded on a scale of one to ten."
On April 22, 1996, Mitsubishi paid for a "spontaneous" march by 3,000 employees on EEOC's Chicago offices. The company paid more than $30,000 for buses, provided each participating employee with a day's pay and free lunch, and shut down the assembly line. At the same time, it retaliated against employees who chose not to participate by requiring them to report for work or be docked a day's pay and suffer discipline. Some women went on the bus because the alternative was to stay in the plant and clean.
A few weeks later, Mitsubishi suddenly turned much more contrite. The company hired former U.S. Labor Secretary Lynn Martin to examine its policies and make recommendations for change. Martin brought to the $1.1 million consulting contract a reputation for promoting women's rights during 10 years in Congress and her years serving as labor secretary in the Bush administration.
Nine months later, Martin's team produced a report which blamed the pattern of harassment on weak policies, poor communications and a lack of training. The Martin Report recommended what it called a "major restructuring of the company's workplace." The report proposed a 34-point plan which included protocols for dealing with sexual harassment, streamlining of rules and procedures and modifying the salary structure and compensation system to hold management accountable for performance in human relations areas. The Martin Report also recommended reorganizing Mitsubishi's Human Resources Department and the creation of a new Opportunity Programs Department responsible for sexual harassment prevention and day-by-day sexual harassment training for all employees.
"The report is not involved in assessing blame; the time for that is past," Martin said at the release of the report, even though the EEOC's case had not yet been, and remains, unresolved.
At the release of the report, Martin downplayed the uniqueness of the Mitsubishi situation. "Many of the weaknesses we found at Mitsubishi are rife at other companies," Martin said. "Many personnel problems are common to the industry; many cultural differences are either overblown or used to mask the bureaucratic inertia that covers mistakes instead of moving forward."
John C. Hendrickson, EEOC's regional attorney in the Chicago District Office, sees things differently. "In comparison to other cases over the years, what we see in this particular sexual harassment case is of a new and more disturbing order of magnitude," he says, "This is exactly the type of discrimination which the EEOC is committed to opposing under the law and under our recently adopted National Enforcement Plan."
Martin renewed her contract with Mitsubishi in 1997 for another $1.1 million, ostensibly to ensure that Mitsubishi follows through on her recommendations. Company officials have pointed out that Martin's contract includes a provision authorizing her to tell the public if she has doubts that the company is serious about putting her recommendations into practice. But Martin's team is not demanding that Mitsubishi rapidly transform itself. "Think about how race relations have evolved in the U.S.," Steve Hoffman, a spokesman for Martin told the Monitor. "Changes in policy will change the culture of the workplace, but we need time to see that change occur."