Reporter's Notebook

by Catherine Winter

Catherine Winter recording sound on the floor of a pit mine. - Photo by Stephanie Hemphill

Quite a few people would rather we had not done this story, and that made the reporting a challenge, for two reasons: It was hard to get the information we needed, and it was hard for me, on a personal level, to forge on with telling a story many people would rather put behind them.

The mine in Eveleth is under new ownership, but previous managers didn't want to be interviewed, and the current owners said they would not agree to participate in any project regarding women and mining if we so much as mentioned the lawsuit. That meant we couldn't tour the mine, record sound on the property of United Taconite (the former Eveleth Taconite) or interview current managers about their policies and practices regarding harassment today.

I was sorry for that, and I believe if the current owners had agreed to work with us, they would not have regretted it. The people we talked to who still work for the mine say it's nothing like it was in the 70s and 80s. They say today, they would trust management to handle a harassment claim appropriately. It would have added to the story to hear officials discuss how they train managers today, and to spend time with women while they were at work at the mine. We would have liked to be able to report firsthand that the smutty pictures have been taken down and the insulting graffiti painted over.

But it wasn't just officials who were reluctant to talk with us. Most of the people we contacted who work at United Taconite today or worked for Eveleth Taconite while the case was going on also declined to be interviewed.

Many of the men are bitter about previous publicity. They say news stories made them all look like animals, when really most are decent guys. Only a few men agreed to speak with us, and they told widely varying stories. One man said the women were exaggerating the harassment and falsely accusing men in order to get money from the lawsuit. Another said he's still appalled today by how he saw men behave, and still ashamed that he didn't do anything to stop it.

Most female workers from Eveleth Taconite declined interviews, too. We were able to find and contact most of the women involved in the lawsuit, but only three agreed to talk on tape. Many of the women don't like to stir up the painful emotions they still have from the bullying they received. Many testified in court that they had nightmares about the mine, even years later. A few testified that they were so traumatized that they were no longer able to work, or even to get through simple tasks such as doing the dishes.

This is a fundamental conflict for reporters. We wanted no part of re-traumatizing anyone. But we wanted to tell an important story. And we wanted to provide a chance to speak for those who did want to tell their stories.

And some did genuinely want to talk. The women we interviewed gave generously of their time, let us take their pictures, told us sometimes painful stories, and then thanked us for coming. For some women, reminiscing about their days in the mines was fun. They're proud of the hard work they did. They remember jokes people played on each other and funny nicknames coworkers gave each other. Fargo Margo. Puffer. The Bird.

We talked to women who'd worked at mines up and down the Range. We were touched and awed, and again and again we busted up at hilarious stories. One woman told us that she worked in a shop area that had an enormous oven. She used to bring the ingredients for apple pie to work, and make and bake pies during her shift. The guys covered for her so they could have pie. "I was probably the only woman in the world who had my own walk-in oven," she said. "That was the good times."

At the end of an interview with three women from the former Reserve Mine, one woman asked us, "Well, what do you girls think? Could you work in a mine?"

I was floored. I'd never thought about it. But once I did, the answer was, I doubt it. It takes a special breed of woman, tough and strong, with a big sense of humor and the patience and faith to wait out strikes and layoffs. And in the early years, it took the ability to tolerate appalling abuse, and the strength to fight back when nearly everyone - men and women - shunned the few women who spoke out.

I have nothing but admiration for the women who worked in the mines then and who still work there today. I hope they will feel that we did their story justice, and I hope that they know it is a story worth telling.

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