Viewpoint: Mitsubishi Joins Smith Barney as Merchant of Shame

From the assembly lines of a Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill., to the offices of securities industry giant Smith Barney on Wall Street, sexual harassment and sex discrimination are alive and haunting women. The allegations range from hostile workplaces to physical assaults. Whether blue-collar line workers or white-collar stock brokers, the women's stories are chillingly similar.

The women who work -- or worked -- at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal want nothing more than the chance to make a decent living. Mitsubishi is a major employer in a relatively small college town. When the automobile manufacturer set-up shop in the Normal/Bloomington area, most people prospered as a result of the good salaries attached to the union jobs. Naturally, women applied for jobs -- and were hired -- at the plant.

According to complaints filed in a lawsuit against Mitsubishi and allegations made by plaintiffs' attorneys, the women found a work environment fraught with harassment, discrimination and abuse. Women workers claim that their work stations were sabotaged -- causing equipment to malfunction and putting the women at risk of physical harm. Many complained of physical assaults and verbal abuse. It was so bad that the women at Mitsubishi did the unthinkable in a company town: They sued the company.

A male Mitsubishi worker gave a stack of sexually explicit photographs to the plaintiffs' attorneys, explaining that the pictures were left in an employee break room. The men in those pictures were all Mitsubishi workers at a party with an exotic dancer, some of them supervisors, some of them clad in company shirts and engaging in sex acts with the dancer. During a March 1997 visit, plaintiffs' attorneys report seeing a three-foot cardboard penis displayed at the plant.

Many of us might take comfort that the abuse experienced by the women of Mitsubishi happened in an out-of-the-way hamlet called -- ironically -- Normal. We might like to think that those of us who live in large metropolitan areas would never have to face that sort of blatant discrimination, harassment and abuse in a workplace in our own towns. Think again!

Some women who have tried to break into the securities industry may have thought that billion-dollar Wall Street firms would offer great opportunities for them. However, Pamela Martens and the 25 women who have joined her as named plaintiffs in a class action suit against Smith Barney tell us shocking stories of harassment and discrimination.

The complaint against Smith Barney includes allegations that a locker room atmosphere pervaded the branch offices where women's work was sabotaged. Like the women at Mitsubishi, the Smith Barney women told of verbal abuse and physical attacks, and they charged pregnancy discrimination and glass ceilings as well.

Unfortunately, these women have been vilified by both Mitsubishi and Smith Barney. Instead of making sincere efforts to remedy the harassment and discrimination, both companies have treated the complaints like a public relations problem. Both have hired consultants and begun the process of generating a paper trail to prove their commitment to diversity. While we applaud writing non-discrimination policies as a necessary first step, it is just one step. Good practices must accompany those policies. Mitsubishi and Smith Barney cannot fix their problems by simply writing new rules; they have to change their corporate cultures as well.

We challenge Mitsubishi and Smith Barney to reach a fair settlement with the women plaintiffs. We demand that they stop branding these brave women as troublemakers who are jeopardizing the jobs of others. As consumers, we will not settle for anything short of women-friendly workplaces where all people have fair working conditions with equal access to promotions and perks.

The women of Mitsubishi and Smith Barney have sacrificed their livelihoods and reputations to take on corporate giants. Often, they have done so without the support of people in their communities. Their motives and abilities have been questioned -- even by other women. After all, it's a lot easier to believe that there is something wrong with the women. If it's not their fault, then we must acknowledge that many of us face a system that is rigged against us.

We proudly stand with the plaintiffs in the Mitsubishi and Smith Barney cases. During the 1997 National NOW Conference in Memphis, we will honor them all with NOW's Women of Courage award. We will continue our public protests against Smith Barney until there is justice for the women. And we will reinstate our protests against Mitsubishi as we name it a "Merchant of Shame" because the company has not lived up to its promises to treat women fairly and reach a just resolution of the litigation.

We know that harassment and discrimination are weapons used against women and people of color to keep us from competing for higher paying jobs. Somebody prospers when we are excluded from the pool of people vying for prestigious positions. The Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign is determined to make the corporate world understand that harassment and discrimination are not just bad business -- they are bad for business.

With the commitment of every NOW member, we can make Merchants of Shame like Mitsubishi and Smith Barney understand that discrimination is costly. All of us must use our power as consumers and as activists to demand justice for the Mitsubishi and Smith Barney women -- and for ourselves.

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