Power outrage

When Martina Pickett landed a job at Detroit Edison in 1974, she thought that she was set for life.

"I was always told you made good money and they never laid anyone off; it was the land of opportunity," she recalls.

But that was 25 years ago, long before the young worker's enthusiasm changed into deep disgust. And long before she would sit in her attorney's office and point to a 3-inch pile of papers that, in part, led to her disillusionment with the giant electric company. Flipping through the stack, one can understand Pickett's bitterness. Most of the papers contain raunchy sexual depictions that she says were displayed throughout the power plants where she has worked. One is of a mouse holding its large penis calling out, "Here kitty, kitty." Another is a mock employee evaluation. Under the category, "accuracy," it states: "Does excellent work if not preoccupied with pussy." The most demeaning is entitled "build-a-bunch-o-bimbos." It is a photo of a naked woman with her legs spread, cut into pieces, and pasted back together.

But the pictures only tell part of the story. Pickett and several other women fill in the rest. Some say they have been fondled, called "sluts, slits, and cunts," had co-workers urinate -- and one masturbate -- in their presence, and have been "hit on" by supervisors. Others say bosses watch pornographic movies at work. They all say they have been denied promotions by a company they describe as having an impenetrable glass ceiling. Some complain of health problems they say are work related.

While telling her story, Pickett breaks down in tears; the years of humiliation had taken a toll, she says.

Allegations by Pickett and six other women -- who worked in the power generation division which includes the 11 power plants -- are in a class action suit filed last month against the utility giant. The suit alleges sex, race and age discrimination, and a hostile work environment "that is created and/or condoned by Edison Management." It is the fifth suit since 1993 to allege widespread discrimination at Edison. One suit remains under litigation while 3,500 workers in the other three are slated to receive as much as $65 million.

Edison would not talk about the specifics of the case, but spokesperson Lorie Kessler complains that many allegations are 10 to 20 years old. "Edison is a new company compared to two decades ago," she says, citing 18 employee programs that came out of the recent litigation which address workers' complaints.


Opening the ranks

Ironically, it was a class action discrimination suit nearly 30 years ago that brought Pickett and many other women and minorities into Edison. That suit was filed on behalf of African-American workers, fewer than 400 then, mostly clustered in janitorial and other lower-level jobs, among a workforce of 12,000.

Along with the $5 million settlement, the judge in that case forced Edison to implement an aggressive affirmative action program in 1974. In theory, employment opportunities at the utility company were open to African Americans and women, who also had been denied career advancement. Over the next 20 years minorities and women filtered into nearly every level of the company.

Pickett initially worked at Edison's Trenton Channel Power Plant shoveling coal with an all-white, 10-man crew. Pickett says she was greeted early on with water dumped on her head.

"After that, I wore flannels and coveralls," she says, to avoid the intended "wet T-shirt."

When Pickett transferred to another job in 1976, she says her supervisor asked her out and whether she wanted to "fuck around." She says she transferred because her boss mistreated her for refusing to sleep with him. Her new supervisor was not much better, penalizing her more severely than male workers for being late, for instance.

In 1978, Pickett went to the River Rouge Power Plant, where she completed a boiler-repair apprenticeship. Once again, she was the only woman on her shift.

"They always told me the only reason I was hired is because I'm black and a woman," says the 48-year-old. "One guy told me I took a job from his son."

In 1988, the federal government stepped in because Edison had few women supervisors or foremen at its 11 power plants. Rather than advance Pickett, she says management promoted seven younger, white females with less experience to supervisors. When she raised questions, she says she was told she is "not skilled."

Today, fewer than 2 percent of the plants' managers are women, according to the lawsuit. Edison would not say how many women are in the power plants, but Kessler admits that "there is probably not a high population of women in certain types of jobs" despite extensive recruitment efforts.

Pickett, who was promoted once in 18 years, according to the suit, says the final straw occurred last year when she was temporarily transferred to the Conner Creek plant. Though they were removing asbestos alongside men, women were forced to change in a room with only a partial wall and no shower, while the men had a private locker room with showers.

Pickett filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in June for sex discrimination. The following month, the EEOC ordered Edison to pay her $300,000 in damages. The agency also ruled that the company should pay three other women employees at Conner Creek $50,000 each. Edison has appealed the decision.


"Animal farm"

The conditions at Edison's other power plants are no better for women, according to the lawsuit. Julie Coch, 37, has worked at many of them since 1981. She started at the Monroe plant, which she says earns its nickname as "'animal farm or animal house." A supervisor warned her not to get on the elevator or a co-worker would get a "hard on," she recalls.

In 1982, she transferred to Fermi II, which employs fewer than 50 women out of about 1,200 workers, according to the lawsuit. Coch was the only woman on her shift and says she was "mooned," spit on, doused with water, told she was taking a man's job, asked out by her supervisors and co-workers, and called a lesbian when she rebuffed advances. Many of the elevator doors had pictures of a man with his penis exposed and a nude woman; when the doors closed they depicted the pair having sex, according to the lawsuit.

Three higher-level positions that opened in 1984 at the Fermi plant went to newly hired white men while Coch, three other white women, and an African-American man were bypassed, according to the lawsuit.

Years later, she was promoted to power plant operator and was accepted into an apprenticeship to learn how to dispose of asbestos. But she was barred from completing the program, allegedly because she failed a test after passing earlier ones with high scores. Her request to see the results and retake it was denied.

Coch filed a complaint with the EEOC in 1991 after she said a promotion was rescinded. But the agency ruled in favor of Edison and dismissed her complaint.

Coch says the worst part about working for Edison is still having to prove herself. "Especially to employees that have less seniority," says Coch. "The assumption is that I am too stupid to know anything."

The last 18 years seem to have worn her down. Coch has been on a medical leave since Thanksgiving due to work-related stress, she says.

"I have been throwing up quite a bit," says Coch, who looks tired. "I lost 25 pounds since September. It is just one thing after another. ... I'm battle weary."


Power plays

"They don't want women there," blurts out Cynthia Paige, who has been working for Edison since 1969.

"You can do clerical work or get coffee, but that's it."

Gwendolyn Ford-Crossley, who is African American and has been with the company about 18 years, agrees. They both say their troubles began largely when they were made dispatch operators; sending repair crews to fix downed wires is a job traditionally held by white men.

When Ford-Crossley was promoted in 1987, she says she was told that it would take two years to reach a dispatch officer's maximum wage. But according to the lawsuit, a male worker received top pay after six months.

Ford-Crossley says when she complained to a supervisor in one instance, "I was told he was paid more because he's a man."

She says this same supervisor once said he did not want to work with women or blacks. Between 1991 and 1994, Ford-Crossley says she began losing her hair, became short of breath and extremely nervous due to the stress.

"One day I went in and did not even brush my teeth or comb my hair," says the neatly manicured woman.

Ford-Crossley describes each work day as exhausting. "I strike back so quickly now, where I didn't before," she says. "But I am just so tired. I'm tired."

Paige has been out on stress leave twice in 31 years. When she complains about harassment, she says, management acts "like you're crazy, or asks, 'Are you on the rag?'"

When she became the first dispatch operator in 1979, her boss made her clean male co-workers' desks and get them coffee, she says. He looked at pornographic magazines in the office, and when she threatened to complain, he stopped talking to her for several days, according to the lawsuit.

Edison's doctor diagnosed Paige with anxiety and depression due to a "stressful work situation" in 1995, according to the lawsuit, and prescribed antianxiety and antidepressant medications; she did not return to work for about eight months.

"I used to go into the women's bathroom and throw up and shake when they yelled at me," says Paige. "I complain and nothing changes; it never changes."

When the 47-year-old is asked how she will manage at Edison until she reaches retirement in about eight years, she says, "I don't know if I will make it that long to tell you the truth."


True change?

Alice Jennings, the attorney who represents the plaintiffs in this and three other suits against Edison, says she gave the company an opportunity to address the issues in this new suit in settlement talks already under way with the other cases.

"I gave them a month to decide," she says, "and the word was 'file the lawsuit.'"

Kessler says that senior management was made aware of some allegations about six months ago and took immediate action.

"A great deal of effort has been placed toward both addressing concerns voiced," she says, and encouraging others to come forward.

"I think that speaks to our efforts to safeguard employees from situations that could result in harassment," says Kessler.

Jennings is not optimistic that lawsuits are the solution at Edison. "People have to have a new way of thinking. They need to value people who are different," she says. "Until that happens, we can file all the lawsuits we want, Edison can pay us all they want but how do you force that kind of change?"

Offending many

It is not only women who say they have been demeaned at Detroit Edison. According to the lawsuit, Arab Americans have been called "sand niggers," and African Americans have been referred to as "you people," and "nigger."

The pile of drawings the women plaintiffs brought forth illustrate some of the racism the lawsuit alleges. In one, a black pimp stands in the unemployment line with an office worker asking: "Have you sold pussy lately?"

Both Arab Americans and African Americans say they have been denied promotions. According to the lawsuit, African Americans and other minorities hold fewer than 12 percent of Edison's power plant jobs.


Litany of litigation

-1971 The first class action lawsuit is filed against Edison for race discrimination. Then, the company employed about 12,000 workers. Fewer than 400 were black, and they held lower-level jobs.

- 1975 This case settles for $5 million. More African Americans and women are hired throughout the company.

- 1993 A class action suit is filed on behalf of minorities, women and older workers who were demoted or terminated as a result of a company reorganization.

- 1997 Three more class action lawsuits for race, national origin, age and gender discrimination are filed.

- 1998 Three suits are settled; they involve 3,500 white-collar workers, who are to receive a settlement of $17 million to $65 million. The fourth case is still being litigated.

- 1998 A class action suit is filed December 30 on behalf of women, minorities and older workers, who were not involved in the reorganization and hold mostly blue-collar jobs.

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