Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Dial attorneys talk settlement

Sexual harassment trial on hold

By Mike Robinson
The Associated Press

CHICAGO - Attorneys for the federal government and Dial Corp. went into last-minute negotiations Monday aimed at settling civil claims that sexual harassment was widespread at the company's suburban soap plant.

Jury selection for a trial of the lawsuit, scheduled to begin Monday morning, was postponed while the two sides negotiated.

"The two sides are talking," John Hendrickson, an attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said when reached by phone. He gave no details.

The courtroom where Senior U.S. District Judge Warren Urbom was to preside over the trial was dark, and a sign was left on the door saying, "The trial will not go forward at this time."

The government contends that dozens of women at the Dial plant said they faced sexual harassment - from crude comments to groping to pornography - and supervisors did nothing to stop it. Someone even whittled a bar of soap into the shape of a male body part, the EEOC's suit said.

The suit, filed on behalf of 90 current and former workers at the Aurora plant, is the biggest sexual harassment case brought by the EEOC since a landmark lawsuit against Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America five years ago, according to the federal agency. That plant was also in Illinois, in downstate Normal.

Mitsubishi settled for $34 million. The company's North American division paid awards ranging from $10,000 to $300,000 to 486 female workers to settle allegations that women on an assembly line were groped and insulted and that managers did nothing to stop it.

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Dial Corp. had declined to follow Mitsubishi's lead, saying the charges were unfair and the trial would vindicate the company. But both sides had left the door ajar for a last-minute deal.

Hendrickson had said a trial could take seven weeks, with the government calling as many as 50 witnesses, including many women who say they were afraid to report harassment.

Sumiko Baker, 42, said she was working the night shift when a male co-worker came up close behind her. She said he told her, "We could get a lot closer."

She said she kept quiet because she didn't want a reputation as "a huge troublemaker."

"I was not going to be a martyr who was going to change things at the risk of not getting a reference" for another job, said Baker, who now works elsewhere.

Dial attorney Camille Olson said such women didn't want to get their male co-workers in trouble over mere horseplay.

She said some of the harshest allegations, such as male workers exposing themselves on the shop floor, supposedly occurred too long ago to qualify for this trial.

As for pornography, Olson said a few copies of Playboy may have been squirreled away in drawers but not much more.

Dial said men who caused real problems were warned and in some cases fired. The company said it established a training program to head off such problems as early as 1990, and even got an EEOC award for a job well done.

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