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Employees, Nabisco Settle Lawsuit Over Work Rules

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Female employees of a defunct Nabisco Foods plant in Oxnard announced Sunday the settlement of a sex discrimination lawsuit against the company, ending a bitter labor dispute over allegations that women were consistently denied bathroom breaks and resorted to wearing diapers on the job.

Terms of the out-of-court settlement were not disclosed, and neither the lawyers representing the women nor Nabisco officials would comment.

However, a joint statement issued Sunday said settlement had been reached on the class-action lawsuit, filed in March of last year, and all other complaints against the company, including claims for severance pay from workers displaced when the 3rd Street factory shut down last month.

“The terms of the settlement are confidential,” the one-paragraph statement said. “The settlement was made without any admission of liability or wrongdoing by any of the defendants and all defendants affirmatively denied any liability or wrongdoing.”

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The agreement still must be approved by the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

But with the lawsuit scheduled for trial next week, hundreds of women involved in the matter learned the terms of the settlement over the weekend and were told that the case would not go to court. The workers were prohibited from discussing the agreement.

“This is a long, ugly story of discrimination and retaliation,” said Joe Fahey, spokesman for the Teamsters union that represented the workers. “These women deserve to be compensated for . . . the humiliation and health problems Nabisco caused by denying their basic human needs to use the toilet.”

The deal ends, at least for now, a long-running dispute that brought national attention to the Oxnard factory, which bottled the world’s supply of A-1 Steak Sauce and Grey Poupon mustard.

In January 1995, dozens of female employees at the plant filed sex discrimination charges against the New Jersey-based food maker with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The complaints alleged that managers unduly restricted the restroom privileges of female employees, a practice so prohibitive that some workers resorted to wearing diapers on the job and suffered bladder infections.

Those complaints were followed by the filing of the sex discrimination lawsuit in March.

Nabisco officials--who have denied the charges all along--announced last September that they had sold the Oxnard plant and the company’s line of Ortega Mexican foods to a division of Nestle USA Inc.

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While Nabisco was shifting the rest of its operation back East, Nestle decided to shift production of Ortega products to other plants and put the Oxnard factory up for sale, a move that put hundreds of employees out of work and silenced the production lines at the factory for the first time in at least 50 years.

By settling all claims, the agreement most likely nullifies the women’s complaints filed with the EEOC last September alleging that Nabisco shut down its local operation in retaliation for the filing of sex discrimination charges against the company.

The agreement also addresses claims for severance, but union leaders were unsure whether that provision would include severance pay for hundreds of seasonal workers displaced by the sale of the plant.

In fact, the agreement could jeopardize negotiations, scheduled to start this week between Nabisco and the Teamsters, concerning severance pay. But Fahey said he plans to continue those talks, noting that the Teamsters union is the bargaining agent for the workers and has sole authority to negotiate such matters.

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“The union has always represented all of the workers at this plant,” he said. “Clearly, it seems to me that Nabisco is trying to get the union to stop representing its members and we’re not going to.”

Still at issue are separate retaliation complaints against Nabisco, filed by the Teamsters with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Fahey said in coming weeks union officials will decide how to pursue those claims.

“We’re going to continue to fight for those workers who have lost their jobs,” he said. “We feel their livelihood has been stolen from them because they spoke out.”

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