Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Movie stirs memories on Iron Range

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The EVTAC mine. In the 1980s, Eveleth Mines engaged in a "callous pattern and practice of sexual harassment" that "sought to destroy the human psyche as well as the human spirit," according to the federal appeals court. (Submitted photo)
Hundreds of people are expected to show up at the Thunderbird Mall in the Iron Range city of Virginia this weekend to try out as extras in a Hollywood movie. Some people on the Range are excited to have movie stars like Charlize Theron in town. But others worry about how the film will make northern Minnesota look to outsiders.
The movie is about a group of women who filed a lawsuit over sexual harassment at one of the mines. The lawsuit divided people on the Range almost like a civil war. And the divisions are still there.

Eveleth, Minn. — At a recent high school hockey game in Virginia, the stands were packed, and people were talking about the as-yet-unnamed Hollywood movie that's about to be shot here.

"I'm kind of excited about the movie," says Steve Ivansich. "I'm just a little nervous it may give northern Minnesota -- the Range -- a bad light or a bad reputation, because it was pretty vicious what was going on."

"We were talking about it at school today," says Monica von Wald. "There are a lot of people that are going to be extras in it, and I think it's going to be good for the area."

But others aren't convinced. Some worry the movie will cast a bad shadow, and others say the mines have changed for the better.

The movie will have some hockey scenes. But the story is about an ugly episode in the Range's history.

Back in the mid-1970s, demand for iron ore was strong, and the mines were hiring. They were even hiring women. That's because the big steel companies had signed an agreement with the federal government to make up for discrimination against women and minorities.

Dozens of women applied for jobs in the mines. In some places they received an ugly reception. At the EVTAC mine in Eveleth, a few men brutally harassed the women.

Some of the women were so traumatized by threats and assaults that they became disabled. They were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And they don't like to talk to the media anymore.

One of the women who worked at EVTAC was Pat Kosmach. She died 10 years ago. But her friend Jeanne Aho remembers when Pat would call her to talk about the problems at EVTAC.

"They were openly discriminated against, and management was hostile," Aho says. "There'd be filthy writing on the wall, and graphic pictures, and the typical 'men are better than women' put-down things, to make women feel like they weren't supposed to be there."

Some of the men would call the women obscene names; they grabbed the women and threatened them. When a woman used a portable toilet, someone knocked it over. Once a supervisor and another worker drove two women to a remote part of the plant and demanded sex.

Aho says the most horrible incident she heard about was when a man broke into one woman's locker and soiled her clothing.

"I remember her talking about it when it happened, and how horrified and embarrassed they were. And that's what it was designed to do -- to degrade them," says Aho.

Some of the men tried to support the women. Brian Lahti was an official in the steelworkers union at the time. "A lot of the women would call me at home, and we'd talk and talk and talk. Some of them were actually afraid for their lives," says Lahti. "You'd try to talk to them and try to help them out, any way you could. But then, I had to go to that job too, so you had to be careful how you walked."

The local media did very little reporting on the situation. But the rumors flew. One story said the women were trying to close down the mine and throw all the men out of work. Brian Lahti says the distrust and bitterness rippled out in all directions.

"We were tainted as barbarians, and for 99 percent of us that was not the case," Lahti says. "But yeah, there was that 1 percent -- the courts proved that it went on. It made a lot of the workers bitter -- what would their wives think -- 'Are you doing that on the job?' -- 'Of course not, dear.' But it created that kind of pressure."

There were hundreds of men at Evtac, and just a couple dozen women. Pat Kosmach knew how to stand up for herself, and she was active in the union, so the men generally left her alone. Her friend Jeanne Aho says Kosmach tried to stand up for the women who were being victimized. One was Lois Jenson.

"She had it the worst," says Aho. "It devastated her."

Lois Jenson was petite and proper. She wasn't used to the rough language and explosive anger of some of the men.

For nine years, she went to a job where she had to walk past obscenities and graphic pictures on the walls. Where men made rude comments as she passed. Where they cornered her and groped her.

Occasionally she would complain to a foreman or a union representative. But nothing changed.

Then a male co-worker started stalking her. When the company refused to reassign him, she contacted the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. That office took the case on, but it always seemed to get buried under other work. Two years later, nothing had happened. So Lois Jenson found a lawyer to represent her, and she sued. Eventually, 21 women signed on.

It would have to be rated "R" to show what really happened.
- Jeanne Aho

The lawsuit called on the mine to stop the harassment and pay damages to the women for their suffering. It was the first time in the country such a suit was certified as a class action. But the case dragged on for years, and Jeanne Aho says her friend Pat Kosmach told her things only got worse at the mine.

"Guys that were neutral before joined in the harasser side," she says. "Everybody took sides, and she lost friends, and people were cold to her that had no reason to be. It hurt her. It hurt all those women."

Defense lawyers tried to prove the women weren't suffering from what happened at work. The attorneys uncovered intimate details of other difficulties in the women's lives to explain their physical and emotional problems. When they took the stand, the women felt they were being attacked all over again.

But finally, 12 years after they hired a lawyer, the women won their case.

The decision set a major precedent. It said a workplace can be so hostile toward women that employees can sue for relief as a class. Businesses all over the country began to establish policies on sexual harassment.

The women got a settlement from the company -- but Pat Kosmach never saw any of it. She died before the case ended.

A book about the case, "Class Action," was published in 2002. And now, a movie is in the works. The Warner Brothers movie is based partly on the book. It's being directed by Nikki Caro, who directed "Whale Rider," and stars Charlize Theron, Sissy Spacek, and Frances McDormand.

Jeanne Aho has mixed feelings about the movie. She says it's good the story's being told, but she worries Hollywood might water down the reality.

"Because you can't show that on the TV," Aho says. "It would have to be rated "R" to show what really happened."

Other people around town seem to be counting on the movie to smooth out the rough edges. Patty Koivunen tends bar at the Roosevelt Bar in Eveleth.

"It's based loosely on the book, and it's also a hockey movie, and I think it'll be nice publicity for the Range," she says. "It's a lovely area, great people, and it's definitely going to help our economy with the money coming in. It's going to be very exciting."

The woman who started the lawsuit -- Lois Jenson - isn't pleased. She declined to talk on tape. But she says the book is full of inaccuracies, and ignores the men who did help her. Jenson says she wishes the movie weren't being made on the Iron Range, because it's raking up a lot of old pain.

She says she and the other women who worked at Evtac were hurt first by the harassment in the mine. They were hurt again when they were asked humiliating personal questions in court. She says the book caused more pain. And now, she expects the same from the movie.