STUNG by a major federal sexual harassment lawsuit, a Mitsubishi auto plant has rallied thousands of employees to demonstrate support for the company through petitions, calls to the White House, and a large protest in Chicago yesterday.
The backlash by Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America (MMMA) against an April 9 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) class-action suit marks the first time a major international firm has struck back so publicly and combatively against sexual harassment charges, legal experts say.
But Mitsubishi's public reaction to the charges worries other US Mitsubishi subsidiaries and car dealers, who fear customer backlash.
"Mitsubishi's reaction is very extreme," says Helen Norton at the Women's Legal Defense Fund in Washington. "They've recognized that they have a very severe public-relations problem on their hands that could affect their bottom line."
Mitsubishi, a Japanese-owned firm, has strongly denied allegations that since 1990 it has tolerated widespread sexual harassment and discrimination at its plant in Normal, Ill. - charges that could lead to record damage claims totaling millions of dollars. The company claims the charges are politically motivated by the EEOC
In a vocal, two-pronged response, Mitsubishi has mobilized employees while mounting an aggressive legal defense aimed at discrediting its female accusers.
Yesterday, Mitsubishi paid to bus some 2,700 employees 140 miles from the plant in central Illinois to downtown Chicago, where they staged a protest outside the regional EEOC headquarters. Workers boarding the 59 buses received a free box lunch and eight-hours pay.
"The majority of women at this company are outraged at the allegations," says Sheila Randolph, a branch manager at the plant and an organizer of the plant's new "Support MMMA Committee."
Employees, many wearing maroon company shirts, marched in a drizzle carrying posters and chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, it's time to set the record straight." A small group of workers presented petitions to the EEOC, which were signed by hundreds of Mitsubishi's women employees at the plant, who number about 800 in a work force of 4,000.
The company has also set up phones at the plant that are programmed to speed-dial the White House, EEOC, and members of Congress and encouraged employees to call to express their concerns about the suit.
Mitsubishi claims the workers' actions are strictly voluntary.
Still, some experts say employees may worry about possible retaliation if they fail to actively side with Mitsubishi. For instance, although the company shut down production for Monday's protest, workers who did not attend were expected to report for their regular shifts and could therefore be easily identified.
"Some would characterize this as coercive," Ms. Norton says.
Moreover, the company has given workers a powerful incentive to join its campaign by warning them that negative publicity surrounding the suit could ultimately threaten their jobs.
In a company-wide meeting on April 12, MMMA vice president and general counsel Gary Shultz told employees that their job security could be compromised if the EEOC charges lead to a drop in car sales by the firm. Company officials fear that women car-buyers, in particular, may shun the Mitsubishi brand.
"If we don't sell the cars we make, we have no reason to be here," says Ms. Randolph. "Our jobs are at stake."
The biggest employer in Normal, Mitsubishi has brought the city of 42,000 a badly needed injection of well-paid manufacturing jobs and other spin-off employment since setting up shop in 1988, says Mayor Kent Karraker.
As debate intensifies over the charges, Mitsubishi's legal tactics have also incited controversy. The firm's lawyers are reportedly seeking personal information including gynecological records for the 30 alleged sexual-harassment victims who filed a private lawsuit against the company in late 1994, sparking a 15-month EEOC investigation. And last Thursday, the firm unsuccessfully tried to impose a gag order on attorneys representing the women in the private suit.