Boycott May Cut the Mustard : West Hollywood: Councilman threatens consumer action against Grey Poupon and other Nabisco products to show support for women suing the firm.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pardon me, a boycott of Grey Poupon?

That's what a West Hollywood leader is threatening in response to sex-discrimination charges lodged against a Nabisco Foods plant in Oxnard that pumps out the world's supply of the gourmet mustard.

Female employees of the Oxnard plant have asked federal officials to investigate their claims of restricted bathroom privileges at the 3rd Street factory.

The restrictions applied only to women and were so prohibitive that some workers suffered bladder infections and resorted to wearing diapers on the job, according to complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Nabisco officials deny the allegations.

Since going public with their complaints last week, the assembly-line workers have been sorting through requests for interviews from the likes of "Good Morning America" and the "Today" show.

And they have won support from near and far, including the city of West Hollywood, where Councilman Steve Martin announced that he will ask his colleagues to support a resolution calling on Nabisco to quickly remedy the situation or face the ire of consumers.

"It's just incredible in 1995 that an employer would subject women to these types of Third World conditions," Martin said of the plant, which also makes steak sauce and chili pepper products.

"If Nabisco doesn't move on this forthwith, we may perhaps even call a boycott of Nabisco products," Martin said. "And I suspect there are a fair number of Grey Poupon users on the Westside."

Nabisco officials say there is no truth to the workers' complaints. Company spokesman Hank Sandbach said the plant employs workers to substitute for those who need to use the restroom.

"If you need to go to the john, you just raise your hand," Sandbach said. "We believe there is adequate access to restrooms, both during breaks and during work periods. Basically we disagree with what they are saying and we find no basis for the charges that have been filed by the employees."

The EEOC has given Nabisco until mid-February to answer the charges, and Sandbach said the company is preparing a formal response and will meet that deadline.

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Sandbach said last week that not only would restroom restrictions violate Nabisco's contract with the union that represents the Oxnard workers, they would violate the company's work practices and policies.

"We have been honored for some real cutting-edge-type programs, so something like this is utterly inconsistent with the way we operate," he said. "On the face of it, it doesn't wash with the reality there."

Nevertheless, 21 more current and former Nabisco employees have come forward to join a class-action lawsuit being prepared against the company, said Oxnard attorney Gregory Ramirez.

Ramirez has been joined by the California Rural Legal Assistance and the Chicago law firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland in preparing the case.

Among those who have come forward are Jennie Vargas, a 27-year employee who said she decided to speak out after learning that Nabisco had denied the allegations and said workers could go to the bathroom whenever the need arose.

"That is not true," said Vargas, who said she resorted to wearing sanitary napkins in case she failed to make it to the bathroom on time. "It made me very angry. I can't believe they denied it like that, after all the suffering we have gone through."

Eight workers at the Oxnard company already have filed sex-discrimination complaints with the EEOC.

The women who filed the complaints are seasonal workers, hired during a peak period that runs from July to October.

It was only in the past few years that supervisors began cracking down on bathroom privileges, the women said.

Restroom visits often were limited to breaks, they said, and those caught sneaking off the line to use the bathroom were threatened with being sent home without pay.

Martin, the West Hollywood councilman, said his community has a history of leadership on progressive causes.

"It's a way the Westside could show solidarity with the working women of Oxnard, and something we feel would draw attention to their plight," he said.

And what effect would a West Hollywood boycott of Nabisco products have on the Oxnard situation?

"What's really interesting is that Grey Poupon has just sort of become this universal condiment of the Westside," Martin said. "And frankly, Nabisco could suffer severe damage to its product credibility if it is perceived as unresponsive to the concerns of workers, and in particular working women."

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