North Country: Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own

What do the band U2 and the movie North Country have in common? Even when you count lead singer Bono’s commitment to social consciousness, the answer is not that much, except for the fact that I saw them both in the past week. But after having one of U2’s most recent hits embedded in my brain after the concert, I think it’s a good summation of the theme of North Country, a film about the nation’s first sexual harassment class action: Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own. And both are highly worth seeing.

When Bono and company visited our nation’s capital, politics was on the mind of the man rumored to be in the final running for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Whether it was U2’s classic anthems “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Bono’s meeting with President Bush while in town, or asking the concert audience to sign up via cellphone for the singer’s ONE Campaign to combat AIDS and extreme poverty, there were constant reminders of the need to pay attention to what’s going on the world around us. Bono wasn’t going to let the audience forget that, and his tireless activism speaks even louder than his band can sing. (See Reviews “I Have a Brother,” and U2, Saving Its Thunder For First.)

One of U2’s singles from its latest release, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, third on the album and third on the set list at last week’s concert, is “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own.” While the lyrics chronicle Bono’s relationship with his father, who passed away in 2001, it’s also a fitting summation for the movie North Country, starting Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, as the movie’s protagonist, Josey Aimes.

The employment lawyers among us will also recognize that it parallels the story of our nation’s first sexual harassment class action, Jensen v. Eveleth Taconite (a case with “a long, tortured, and unfortunate history,” according to Judge Lay, who wrote the 8th Circuit opinion) with the female plaintiffs represented by NELA member firm Sprenger + Lang. Some may have even read the book upon which the story is based, Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler (although the movie is a fictionalized account, since the plaintiffs chose not to sell the rights to their story.)

Josey Aimes, after fleeing an abusive marriage with her two children, returned to her childhood home in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range to live with her parents, who were none too happy to take her in. Eager to escape their censure and to make it on her own, she takes a job, at the urging of her friend Glory (played by another Oscar winner, Frances McDormand), at the local mines. The work was hard, but dealing with her male coworkers, recently forced to accept female colleagues at the mine for the first time, was even harder.

The movie is rated R, for some graphic scenes of sexual harassment and rape, but those scenes were necessary to convey the horror of what Aimes and her coworkers suffered. After enduring repeated and vicious harassment, Aimes started to fight back. She first thought she could resolve the problem internally (and such efforts are now a legal requirement in most situations), but like many others, she found no support from company managment, and ended up being targeted for retaliation. She ultimately turns to hometown hockey hero turned lawyer (played by Woody Harrelson) to take legal action.

Some of the traditional forms of support than other plaintiffs can count on were not available to Josey Aimes. She was single, and her father, who also worked at the mines, was disapproving. Her kids were embarrassed by what was happening to her — especially the public airing of her sexual past. And the support you would think she could count on — that of other women enduring similar harassment — was hardly the sisterhood you might expect. The others were fearful for their jobs and willing to lie to save them, given the dearth of other similar opportunities in the area. The union, dominated by its male membership, was also unwilling to support Josey and the other women, despite the best efforts of Josey’s friend Glory, who was the only female union representative.

Without trying to give too much away (although I suspect you can guess how it ends), it is only when Josey is able to attract the support of others, through her own tenacity and her lawyer’s persuasiveness, that she is able to succeed. It’s obviously a strong testimony to the power of a class action case. But perhaps it’s also a subtle indictment of the difficulty of bringing an individual case, when that involves taking on not only a powerful employer, but scared coworkers dependent on their employer to survive. And whether you have no union, or at best, a completely ineffectual union like Aimes was so unfortunate to have, going it alone is isolating and much more difficult than having others on your side.

Not every case is a class action, of course. And not every case will be as hard fought as the one from the Minnesota mines. But anyone inspired enough by Josey’s story to themselves consider fighting back should remember “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own.” It certainly won’t hurt to have your friends, your family, your coworkers, and your lawyers on your side, because even then, you’re up for a tough battle.

As Theron said in a recent interview, “It’s very easy to sit in our comfy environment and say, ‘I would fight like Josey.’ But would you, really? Would you fight for, like, 14 years when everybody’s ostracizing you and saying you’re a slut and a nut and crazy and you asked for it and your children are being beaten up in school? That, to me, is incredibly brave.” (See San Francisco Chronicle article.) This film salutes the bravery of the women of the Iron Range, and ultimately all those who have fought back against sexual harassment, while giving those who haven’t experienced this level of egregious workplace conduct a flavor of what it’s like.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: sexual harassment

North Country movie reviews

Minnesota Lawyer article: Interview with Paul Sprenger, who represented the Minnesota plaintiffs.

Slate article: Niki Caro – The director of North Country talks about sexual harassment (and if you haven’t seen Caro’s debut film, Whale Rider, you’ve missed a great flick!)

Stand Up: A Campaign to End Sexual Harassment and Domestic Violence: an activist campaign inspired by the movie

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.