Fear And Loathing At Mitsubishi

Its hard line raises tensions and may weaken its legal position

Is Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc. making a bad situation worse?

Accused in early April of countenancing sexual harassment at its carmaking plant in Normal, Ill., the company not only denied the allegations but on Apr. 22 paid 3,000 workers a day's wages to travel to Chicago to picket the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's regional offices, which is pressing the case. Back in Normal, complainants still working for Mitsubishi say the company's tough tactics have put the plant dangerously on edge. "It's very much a hostile work environment," says one. Adds another: "I am afraid."

The women who feel most targeted are the 15 still working at the plant while pursuing a civil suit against Mitsubishi Motors in Federal District court in Peoria, Ill., that is separate from the EEOC's action. Some of the women, who have been reluctant to talk to the press, complain of threats by co-workers. According to plaintiffs' attorneys Patricia Benassi and George Galland, as one woman left a recent gathering of employees, another worker snapped: "Watch your back, bitch." Terry Paz has received threatening calls and found a note in her locker that read "Die bitch, you'll be sorry," the lawyers say. Bathroom graffiti mentions "hunting" women who cause job losses, say the lawyers. "I'm worried about the physical safety of my plaintiffs," says Galland.

Mitsubishi Motors General Counsel Gary Shultz says he is aware of only one threat involving the women, the note in Paz's locker. "That has been investigated, and beyond that I can't comment," he says. But he says the company has fired workers in the past for harassment and regards any such behavior as grounds for firing. The EEOC allegations are unfair because the company has always acted quickly to snub out any harassment, contends Shultz. "Our policy with respect to sexual harassment is zero tolerance."

LOBBYING POWER. Losing the harassment cases could prove costly for Mitsubishi. On Apr. 9, the EEOC charged that female employees at the plant were subject to groping, sexual graffiti, and abusive comments while management took little or no disciplinary action. The EEOC says up to 700 women may have been affected by the alleged conduct. The statutory limit on damages in such cases is $300,000 each. If the company loses in court, it could be the largest sexual-harassment award ever. The civil suit would come on top of that.

The question now is whether the company's stern response to the allegations has weakened its legal position. On top of subsidizing the Chicago demonstration, the company installed telephones at the Normal plant so employees could lobby politicians about the EEOC case. It also held employee meetings in mid-April at its cafeteria during which Shultz pointedly noted that workers' jobs could be jeopardized if this case is upheld, say employees who attended. Schultz says he was merely repeating concerns voiced to him by workers.

Critics contend that such statements have helped poison the atmosphere in the plant. "I think people are concerned that this could hurt car sales and hurt jobs," says Donald Shelby, vice-president of United Auto Workers Local 2488, which represents workers at the plant. On Apr. 20, the UAW's national leadership condemned the company for promoting the demonstration and for not working with the union to resolve the harassment charges.

INTIMIDATION? The hostile atmosphere at the plant could expose Mitsubishi Motor to charges of intimidation, legal experts say. Civil-rights laws prohibit companies from trying to coerce workers into not making or pursuing complaints. "They may be increasing rather than decreasing their potential liability," says Mary E. Becker, a professor at the University of Chicago's law school. "Compensatory damages could also be available for charges of retaliation."

The company also may be perceived as trying to intimidate the EEOC, the experts say. "Mitsubishi, by encouraging the march on the EEOC, seems to be taking an unprecedented step in organizing workers to influence the decisions of a federal agency," says Frank Cassell, professor emeritus of Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

More than 100 other companies bear the Mitsubishi name and are loosely affiliated with the carmaker. Some are griping that the tough tactics will hurt their image, too. A Tokyo spokesman for Mitsubishi Motor's Japanese parent says it has no plans to intervene. But if the strategy at Normal gets any more aggressive, that could change in a hurry.

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