Michigan NOW President Alicia Perez-Banuet (right) speaks to the media in front of Detroit Edison headquarters where activists and workers protested the power company's hostile work environment which earned it a "Merchant of Shame." Photo by Sue Rumph.
NOW's Merchant of Shame roster grows as a third company, Detroit Edison, is targeted by the Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign for serious allegations of workplace abuses. After months of discussion and investigation involving both Detroit Edison workers and company leaders, NOW members at the 1999 National Conference voted to add the Fortune 500 company to the list.
NOW President Patricia Ireland named Detroit Edison a Merchant of Shame at a press conference in Detroit on Aug. 21, 1999. The press conference kicked-off a day-long informational forum on employee rights, "Protect Your Rights 2000 . . .What Workers Want!" The forum brought together 200 workers from different industries as well as community, religious and labor leaders who spoke about the importance of having a safe and equal workplace.
Detroit Edison, no stranger to the courts, is currently facing its fifth lawsuit since the early 1970s. This time the class-action lawsuit against Detroit Edison, Michigan's largest utility company and the seventh largest in the nation, is for sexual harassment and sex, race and age discrimination. The lawsuit was filed in December 1998 on behalf of women and people of color in several of the plants of the power company. At that time, NOW launched the first phase of a consumer and corporate strategy to pressure Detroit Edison to clean-up its act at all of the power plant facilities.
In late March Ireland and the Women Friendly Workplace staff member met with Detroit Edison CEO Anthony Early, another officer and a director, both women, to discuss the status of the pending lawsuit and the need to implement and enforce policies to address harassment and discrimination. Early said he could do nothing about events that occurred 15 or 20 years ago, despite his regret if they happened. Both Ireland and Early acknowledged that a change in company culture does not happen over night, but NOW urged that immediate steps be taken to remedy the pervasive hostile work environment.
"We thought we at least had a commitment that the company would work to resolve the lawsuit quickly and fairly, and also that the workers would not face retaliation, personal attacks or efforts to turn other workers against them," Ireland said. "Apparently we were wrong." On April 6, 1999, the company sent a letter to every employee saying the workers who brought the suit were engaged in fraud and misrepresentation.
Five months later, little has changed at the power plant facilities. Both old and new racially offensive and sexually explicit graffiti still decorates the walls at the Marysville, St. Clair and Belle River plants. Women's facilities are still inadequate and substantially different from the men's. The protective work gear is kept in the men's locker room, where women do not have access, so they must tell a supervisor what size they need. Finally, the Detroit Edison management has not held the necessary trainings to counter harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Detroit Edison is not only carrying the embarrassing label Merchant of Shame and confronting legal disputes, but also facing the loss of customers as a result of deregulation.
In March the Michigan Public Service Commission ruled that beginning on Sept. 20, 1999, consumers in the state would have a choice of power suppliers. Currently Detroit Edison has control of the generation and distribution of electricity for 50 percent of Michigan's residents. With deregulation Detroit Edison will be competing with national and international companies that are looking to provide the electricity for Michigan's schools, businesses and homes. The new program will be phased-in slowly and be fully completed by Jan. 1, 2002.
In this charged climate, NOW promises to put consumer and corporate pressure on Detroit Edison until management creates an equal and safe workplace for employees. "Before Michiganders choose a utility company under the new deregulation rules, we want them to know about the working conditions and abuses reported at Detroit Edison plants," Ireland said. "We're going to help Detroit Edison see the light: harassment and discrimination are not only bad business practices, they're bad for business."
NOW is asking chapters to fill out the Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign
petition (available at www.now.org/issues/wfw/
or by calling 202-628-8669) and send it to Detroit Edison's headquarters
urging management to improve working conditions at all their facilities.