AT a gleaming, 2-million-square foot plant that rises out of cornfields in Normal, Ill. Mitsubishi rolls out a car each minute, boasting some of the world's most sophisticated auto-making technology.
But for women laboring on the state-of-the-art assembly lines, Mitsubishi's corporate culture has been rife with a sexism more reminiscent of an early industrial sweatshop, according to a recent federal lawsuit.
In what could be the largest sexual harassment suit ever, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged on April 9 that since 1990 the Japanese-owned company has subjected dozens and possibly hundreds of female employees to "continuous physical and verbal abuse" - charges the company denies.
Experts say the potential landmark suit underscores the pervasive and sometimes severe sexual harassment faced by women workers, especially in traditionally male, blue-collar occupations. According to government surveys, an estimated 45 percent of American women say they have experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job.
The suit also suggests that women can fight harassment more effectively by banding together. The majority of sexual harassment victims today still keep silent for fear of losing their jobs, surveys show.
"Employers will certainly have an incentive to police the workplace if they see significant monetary liability in this case," says Mary Becker, a University of Chicago law professor.
In the suit, the EEOC charges that male workers inappropriately touched the women and regularly insulted them with sexual slurs, graffiti, and explicit questions in what constituted a "pattern and practice" of gender-based discrimination. Complaints by the women in some cases met with potentially life-threatening retaliation on the factory floor, the EEOC says.
Officials at the company, Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc., responded to the charges by denying that discrimination has ever existed at the plant.
Under the 1964 and 1991 civil rights acts, the class-action suit will seek the maximum compensation of $300,000 each for as many as 700 women. That could produce total damages as high as $210 million - by far the greatest in any sexual harassment suit, EEOC officials say. The 1991 act first made it possible for victims to claim compensation for sexual harassment in addition to back pay or lost wages.
To date, the largest monetary recovery from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the EEOC was $1.2 million in a 1995 settlement with Del Laboratories of Farmingdale, NY.
Growing numbers of Americans, 90 percent of them women, are speaking out against unwelcome sexual advances on the job. The number of sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC shot up 135 percent between 1990 and 1995 as the monetary benefits tripled to $24.3 million, official statistics show.
"More and more women recognize that sexual harassment is illegal and is something they do not have to tolerate," explains Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington.
Still, experts say progress in curbing or preventing sexual harassment has often lagged behind for women, such as those at Mitsubishi, who are breaking into blue-collar occupations long monopolized by men. Such women often suffer worse harassment and face greater obstacles to gaining relief than women in white-collar workplaces, they say.
"The real point of sexual harassment is often to keep women out of male economic territory," says Professor Becker.
Laws against sexual harassment have had "a negligible effect on the lives of working women in the blue-collar trades," says Elvia Arriola, a professor of law at the University of Texas, who has studied women in the New York City construction industry.
Professor Arriola believes the sexual hostility women face in a heavily masculine, blue-collar work culture has effectively held down the percentage of women in trades such as construction (2.3 percent), precision production (8.9 percent), and mining (3.6 percent).
Although more women have been hired for such occupations since the 1970s, lack of employer safeguards against harassment on the job means many are driven to quit, says Shelly Davis, a policy associate at the advocacy group Chicago Women in Trades.
Such trends are illustrated at Mitsubishi, which with 4,000 workers is the biggest employer in Normal, federal officials and attorneys say.
Since it began operations at Normal in 1988, Mitsubishi has hired a significant percentage of women but failed to "lay down the law" on sexual harassment, says George Galland, who represents 30 women who filed a private lawsuit against the company in late 1994.
"When you bring women into an all-male, macho environment they will get eaten alive unless you make it clear from the beginning they will be treated with dignity and respect," Mr. Galland says.
As a result, "[the harassment] was ongoing, daily, and egregious," says Cynthia Pierre, deputy director of the EEOC's Chicago regional office.
Complaints by women employees to Mitsubishi's management were largely ignored and "no one took it seriously," Ms. Pierre says. Meanwhile, individual male workers retaliated in some instances with dangerous pranks on the assembly line, she says.
And although the local union opposed "any type of harassment or discrimination" at the plant, it apparently did little to alleviate the mistreatment of the women, EEOC officials say.