National Action Center interns joined Capital City NOW to protest mandatory arbitration outside a meeting of the National Association of Securities Dealers in Washington, D.C. Jess Waters (foreground) has since started a campus chapter at American University. Photo by Beth Corbin.
by Loretta A. Kane,
The settlement agreement proposed in the sexual harassment and sex discrimination case against Wall Street brokerage firm Smith Barney is a major breakthrough in NOW's Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign. Smith Barney executives agreed to a landmark departure from the onerous practice of mandatory arbitration of employment discrimination complaints.
For the next two years, an estimated 20,000 women will have access to an alternative dispute resolution process with an unlimited fund to compensate them for losses, with damages, including punitive damages, available against the firm for complaints going back to May 1993. Although the process falls short of a jury trial in federal court, it is better than the industry's standard arbitration and a first step in reforming employment practices on Wall Street.
"We are encouraged that Smith Barney will no longer do business the old fashioned way, " said NOW President Patricia Ireland as she stood on the courthouse steps after the settlement was announced in New York Nov. 18.
The firm has also made an important promise to dedicate $15 million to improving opportunities for all women and for men of color over the next four years and has committed to concrete goals and timetables to measure their progress.
"We are delighted that feminist ally Dr. Johnetta Cole will serve as Smith Barney's diversity adviser," Ireland said in reference to Smith Barney's decision to have the former Spelman College president monitor the company's diversity program. Dr. Cole will speak on Sunday, Feb. 22, during the NOW-organized Women of Color and Allies Summit, "Linking Arms in Dangerous Times," in Washington, D.C. (See related article.)
NOW's Women-Friendly Workplace campaign has had a dramatic impact on both of its national targets: "Merchants of Shame" Smith Barney and Mitsubishi. Women at both companies have made significant progress through lawsuits against their employers.
Mitsubishi Motors settled with all but two of the plaintiffs in the private civil suit against the company. However, the details of the settlement are confidential.
Sources close to both cases credit NOW's Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign with facilitating settlement negotiations. Business as usual was clearly interrupted by NOW's protests.
"Thanks to the hard work of NOW activists across the country both Mitsubishi and Smith Barney are taking serious steps to improve their workplaces and compensate women who have suffered harassment and discrimination," Ireland said.
Despite the settlements, important issues are still up in the air at both Mitsubishi and Smith Barney. The massive Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit against Mitsubishi remains unresolved. At Smith Barney, employees are still required to sign away the right to file discrimination and harassment complaints in court. Further, two of the women who initiated the suit against the securities industry giant have not yet settled their cases.
Ireland warned, "We must not allow the progress in these cases to decrease our efforts. There is still much work to be done." Ireland promises that the "Merchant of Shame" distinction will not be lifted from either Smith Barney or Mitsubishi until all of the outstanding issues are resolved. She also said that future Women-Friendly Workplace actions are planned for 1998. "NOW will monitor Smith Barney's and Mitsubishi's efforts closely," Ireland said.
"We will also step-up our campaign with spring protests to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to approve a proposed National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) rule change eliminating mandatory arbitration of employment discrimination claims.
"During Women's History Month in March we will continue making history with this important campaign," Ireland added. NOW activists across the country will organize Women-Friendly Workplace demonstrations to celebrate International Women's Day, March 8. The protests will target not only the SEC, but also companies identified by local NOW chapters. Ireland encourages activists to contact SEC Chair Arthur Levitt to press him to take immediate action to adopt the NASD rule change. You can write to Levitt at SEC Headquarters, 450 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20549 or send an e-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-942-7040.
For more information on this campaign, visit NOW's Web Page at www.now.org or call the NOW Action Center at 202-331-0066. If you have a personal story of workplace discrimination to share, visit the Speak Out on NOW's Web site at http://www.now.org/wfw/speakout.html or call the Tip Line at 202-331-0066, extension 350.
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