Dial soap sexual harassment case headed for showdown

Monday, April 28, 2003

CHICAGO -- Sumiko Baker was working the night shift at Dial's Aurora soap plant when a male co-worker came up behind her and pressed his body against hers. She told him not to get so close.

"We could get a lot closer," the 42-year-old suburban woman remembers her fellow employee saying as she waved her engagement ring at him in an effort to stave off his advances.

Government lawyers say jurors will hear many such stories and more extreme ones at a sexual harassment trial due to begin with jury selection today before Judge Warren K. Urbom in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 90 current and former Dial workers, is the biggest sexual harassment case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since the landmark lawsuit against Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America five years ago.

That case resulted in a $34 million damage settlement with awards ranging from $10,000 to $300,000 for 486 of Mitsubishi's female workers.

At Dial, federal officials allege the breasts and buttocks of female employees were groped, pornography was commonplace and male workers made crude suggestions and called women names.

Supervisors took no action to stop the harassment, which included a bar of soap being whittled into the shape of a male organ, the EEOC said.

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Dial Corp., which produces 2.3 million bars of soap a day at the Aurora plant, insists the charges are unfair.

Dial attorney Camille Olson said some of the most extreme incidents, such as male workers exposing themselves on the shop floor, are alleged to have occurred decades ago and won't be allowed in evidence at the trial.

Ruled out evidence

Urbom, who lives in Omaha, Neb., and will preside over the case as a visiting judge, has ruled out evidence of anything that occurred before 1986.

EEOC Regional Attorney John Hendrickson scoffed at the notion that tolerance for sexual harassment at the plant has lessened in recent years.

"Terrible things happened before 1986 that aren't going to come in but just as terrible things have happened since 1986," Hendrickson said.

Diana Fecht, a union steward, said a cartoon of a man exposing himself was sent to a female employee on her computer last Wednesday, Fecht said.

"He just opened up his coat and he flashed," she said.

By the time company officials arrived to investigate a day later, the message had vanished, Fecht said.

Olson said anyone eager to hear steamy details will be disappointed by the testimony that witnesses actually will produce.

"One of the allegations is, 'the supervisor touched me on the shoulder' or 'a person looked at me when I came into the room,'" Olson said. "Another is that 'a supervisor called me honey.'"

As for pornography, she said a copy or two of Playboy may have been squirreled away in drawers near the production line but not much more. EEOC attorneys said they will prove the plant was awash in pornography.

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

So far, Dial has refused to follow Mitsubishi's lead and settle with the government, saying a trial will vindicate its good name.

But both sides are leaving the door ajar for a last-minute deal.

Hendrickson said the government could call as many as 50 witnesses at the trial, which he estimates could take seven weeks. Many witnesses will be women who say they were afraid to report that they had been harassed.

Olson said such women didn't want to turn in their male co-workers and get them in trouble over what was no more than a bit of amorous horseplay.

But Baker -- the woman who flashed her engagement ring in an effort to disengage herself from a male co-worker -- said that wasn't her reason.

She said she didn't want to find herself in a situation "where I needed to use the company for a reference and I was 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," said Baker, who now works elsewhere.

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