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SPECIAL REPORT // A WOMAN'S PLACE

George Jenkins, the cigar-chomping founder of the Publix Super Markets empire, had a simple motto: "Give the lady what she wants."

Nine days ago, Howard Jenkins, the son who inherited the company, stepped to a podium in Tampa and did just that.

It wasn't exactly what George had in mind.

The younger Jenkins announced he would settle a gender discrimination lawsuit for $81.5-million. He insisted Florida's largest employer had done no wrong, and he offered no apologies.

A jury would never hear Case No. 95-1162-CIV-T-25E.

No company could have looked forward to defending itself against the more than 200 Publix women who alleged discrimination and harassment in sworn statements. Without a trial, their stories would remain buried in 36 volumes and eight cardboard crates at the federal courthouse in Tampa.

But from interviews, court documents and affidavits _ Publix officials refused to comment for this story _ a backstage view of a highly private company emerges:

In a world that was invisible to Publix customers, female employees were discriminated against and had to tolerate obscene swagger.

As a courtroom battle drew near, these women would become chess pieces _ for a powerful union and a team of superstar lawyers known for making millions on discrimination cases.

Even amid allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment, men and women who worked at Publix stood by their employer and said it remained a place that embodied Jenkins' original philosophy.

And his was a wildly successful philosophy. The stores had earned a unique place in the hearts of Floridians. Bag boys who refused tips. Palm trees brushing over green and white facades. Freshly baked birthday cakes that would later appear in a family's home movies, a child's face lit by candles.

There was the eternal image of a Publix store manager. He Brylcreemed his hair and wore white shirtsleeves. He had worked his way up through the meat department, and his hands were scarred to prove it. On his 25-year anniversary with Publix, he posed at a candlelight banquet wearing a green jacket and a diamond ring.

It was a beautiful system, one that built a tight family of blood brothers.

But did it discriminate against women?

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In 1991, a 16-year-old named Dantys Dicpetris started as a part-time cashier at the Publix in South Pasadena. She was thrilled with an after-school job paying $4.75 an hour. Compared to her old job _ garnishing hot dogs at a fast food place at the mall _ Publix offered a world of promise.

In 1991, the average Publix store manager was earning $68,000 a year, and chances were he had started as a bag boy. As the employee handbook encouraged, "Almost 100 percent of the people who hold key positions started their careers with Publix at the bottom of the ladder. The same opportunity is open to you."

Publix store No. 0038 at the Pasadena Shopping Center was built in 1958, a few blocks from the towering condos near the Gulf of Mexico. Sea gulls angled in the breeze while bronze retirees greeted each other with shopping carts loaded with Publix bags.

It was the balmy dream Publix founder George Jenkins must have first conceived.

On the day she graduated from Boca Ciega High School, diploma in hand, Dicpetris wore her cap and gown to the store and posed for a photo with the manager.

But she had begun to question the dream.

A male grocery bagger would corner her in the backroom to kiss her. One day while working at her register, he reached between her legs.

The store manager's face shone down benevolently from the photo displayed above the customer service desk. He could put a stop to this.

But when Dicpetris went to him, he said the young man hoped to join the Navy Seals, and a complaint on his record would hurt his chances.

A new store manager rotated in, and after nearly two years of cashiering, Dicpetris was offered the chance to join the stock crew. The stock crew was traditionally an all-male posse of box slingers and shelf-stockers that required some brawn and a lot of speed. On hot summer days, they stripped off their shirts to unload trucks in the back. After midnight, they slid down aisles in a blurred choreography so that when customers arrived in the morning, the shelves were magically full.

At Publix, the stock crew was known as the road to management.

But for Dicpetris, there was a price to pay.

The stock crew was pumped with lewd swagger. "You like to get on top and ride it, don't you?" a stock man asked her, according to court documents.

The crew leader bragged about having sex in his front yard with a woman. It was common for male employees to rate the breast sizes of female customers. Using the store's intercom, they would page each other to the aisle where an attractive woman was shopping.

The crew leader told Dicpetris she didn't belong. The crew required a "man's background," he said. She was assigned to stock the baby food, diaper and tampon aisle.

They were wearing her down. Eventually, Dicpetris did what they all expected. She cried.

"You should get married and stop working," the stock crew leader told her.

Her store manager gave her three choices: learn to get along with the stock crew leader, work in a different department or transfer to another store.

She chose to work on the health and beauty aid aisle.

By 1994, after three years of employment, Dicpetris was still part-time and making $6 per hour.

The crew leader was promoted to second assistant manager at another Publix.

At home, her mother asked her daughter why she didn't just quit.

"Because I was going to be managing that store one day," Dicpetris answered.

This was her beautiful illusion, one that would be tested for truth in a multimillion dollar legal battle:

Was this dream really possible at Publix?

According to the sworn testimony of five other women at the Pasadena Publix, the answer was no.

Three women who worked in the bakery claimed in court documents that bakery manager Michael Masi and assistant bakery manager Bob Bouchard harassed them without mercy, and protected each other.

There was a bread machine in the back of the bakery where dough rolled out in long loaves. Bouchard took one of the loaves, held it front of his pants and said to doughnut maker Sherry Herbst, "Hey, do you think this is big enough or do you think it might hurt?"

When Herbst complained to the store manager, he asked what she was doing to provoke Bouchard.

Masi, the bakery manager, was infuriated with Herbst for reporting Bouchard. According to court document, Masi said: "Bob has a wife and kids and you could make him lose his job."

Masi refused to comment for this story.

Cake decorator Connie Hazlewood says Bouchard asked if her husband was satisfying her. If she became upset on the job, he would say, "What's wrong, isn't (your husband) giving it to you enough?"

On several occasions, Hazlewood complained to Masi.

"If it's about Bob, I don't want to hear it," she said he told her.

Bouchard referred to a large-breasted female employee as "big floppies." In front of the other bakers, he would make gestures with both hands as if squeezing her breasts.

When word spread around the bakery that someone had reported Bouchard to the store manager, Hazlewood said Masi called her at home.

If anyone asks about Bouchard sexually harassing women, he said, keep your mouth shut.

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To loyal Publix shoppers who had observed decades of courtesy and cleanliness, these allegations would be beyond belief.

In 1940, Publix founder George Jenkins mortgaged an orange grove he bought cheaply during the Depression to bankroll the first of his Florida grocery stores. He borrowed the name Publix from a chain of movie theaters. He liked the ring of it. As Jenkins built his modern cathedrals of marble and terrazzo _ wide aisles, spotless floors and fancy electric doors _ the name Publix defined class.

By 1958, 42 Publix stores had sprung up across Florida. Like an Amish barn raising, when word spread that a new store was set to open, groups of Publix workers would travel across state to help with the finishing touches. Jenkins treated the crews to grilled steak dinners. A town preacher often gave an invocation at the store opening.

This alchemy _ the sweat, the blind devotion, even the Lord's blessing _ lifted Publix above the status of mere grocery store. It was something more.

Men built it, yet it was devoted to women. Jenkins constantly puzzled over the female psyche.

"You have to think like a housewife," said the grocer with the pencil-thin mustache. "A housewife is a person of delicate sensibilities. She does not like noise, dirt, crowding or disarray."

"The ladies who enter his supermarkets to purchase a jar of pickled onions feel the same breathless excitement they might experience upon passing through the portals of Tiffany's to buy a string of pearls," said a 1954 Saturday Evening Post profile on Jenkins. "She has in her mind a picture of the meal on the table, with her husband and her young sitting there chomping happily."

So husbands could relax while their wives shopped, Jenkins built second floor lounges above some Publix stores.

The company blossomed from a rural Southern culture in Lakeland, where bankers wore cowboy boots and the wives of the citrus growers ran the Junior League in white gloves. On Sundays, businesses were closed and churches were brimming.

George Jenkins kept Publix stores closed on Sundays until 1983.

Publix printed brochures in 1978 opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. "No company in their right mind came out against it publicly," said former National Organization of Women president Eleanor Smeal. "That was brazen, to say the least."

Women's groups around Florida threatened a boycott. To appease them, Publix vice president Mark Hollis said the opinions about the ERA were his and not the company's.

Two years later, Hollis was named president of Publix.

Publix also opposed the 1991 Civil Rights Act. "Many we've talked to believe this bill would restrict our traditional and effective promotion-from-within policy," the company wrote in a bulletin to employees.

All of this history offered attorneys who would later file a gender bias case against Publix a glimpse behind the company facade.

In the '50s-style lobby of Publix headquarters in Lakeland, where a terrazzo staircase sweeps grandly to the second floor, one of the three large oil paintings on the wall is of Joe Blanton, a past Publix president.

His widow, 88-year-old Alberta Blanton, said everything was going well for Publix until one key change.

"All the problems just came about when women thought they were equal to men," Mrs. Blanton said. "Joe always said to me, "You take care of the children and the house, and I'll do the working.'

"

For decades, the Publix customer was exactly who George Jenkins imagined: the housewife. But then the housewife came from behind the shopping cart and applied for a job.

Was Publix oblivious to social change? Or was it a private company too stubborn to change a winning formula?

In 1994, with half its workforce female, Publix still used an evaluation form for managers that asked "Family Status (does wife work?)"

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Publix might have seen trouble coming.

Since the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a whole bureaucracy of government workers in cubicles began crunching numbers to make sure companies were complying with employment laws.

In the private sector, a new breed of lawyer was developing, too, to litigate these cases. Civil rights crusades in the courtroom were bringing in mountains of cash.

In 1991, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission turned its unwelcome gaze on Publix. The government started doing what it does best _ statistical analysis _ and the figures did not look good for Publix.

By law, every company with more than 100 employees must file an EEO-1 report, which includes the race, gender and job category of employees.

The EEOC routinely scrutinizes these reports. And if the paperwork doesn't incriminate a company, a team of EEOC investigators follows up on tips and rumors. They gumshoe.

The agency won't say specifically what alerted it to Publix.

In 1991, of 384 Publix store managers, two were women. Of 391 assistant store managers, five were women. Women dominated in the deli, a low-paying province of cheese and lunch meat that rarely led to upper management.

In early 1992, after some investigation, the EEOC filed a commissioner's charge against Publix, which suggested there may be "systemic" employment problems within the company.

An investigation was launched to find out more about promotion practices for women and black people. The case could have drifted along in legal limbo, kept secret by law.

But Publix refused to turn over employment data to the government's satisfaction.

"It's unheard of that an employer would be so recalcitrant that we would have to go to federal court twice to obtain information" said Eve Lowe, acting regional attorney for the EEOC.

When the EEOC filed subpoenas to get the database it wanted from Publix, all confidentiality evaporated. A paper trail of documents was created in federal court for anyone to see.

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In 1991, Publix made a business decision that would echo in unpredictable ways.

After decades of dominating Florida, Publix announced it was moving north into Georgia. This meant venturing into union territory. In essence, it meant war.

Both Kroger and A&P were represented in Georgia by the powerful United Food and Commercial Worker's International Union (UFCW). A Publix expansion would threaten these unionized chains, undermining negotiated standards of pay and working conditions.

The UFCW launched its strategic campaign to unionize the Publix stores in Georgia, or drive Publix from the state. It would bathe the company in a public relations nightmare.

"Absent a union contract, the company has absolute power to fire at will, to set schedules at will and to deny people access to jobs if they want," said UFCW spokesman Greg Denier. "There is nothing sinister about a union organizing. Unless you are non-union."

In late 1991, the UFCW lobbed its first grenade. It hired picketers to carry signs in front of the new Publix stores in Georgia.

But an overall strategy _ one far more damaging to the Publix empire _ was to find the company's weakness and exploit it.

In 1993, a UFCW veteran named Emory Walden was assigned to the task. Driving around Florida in a Ford Taurus, staying in budget motel rooms, he began the task of organizing Publix workers.

Walden knew the grocery business inside and out. Since 1969, he had worked the South as an organizer for the UFCW.

"Some people hear the word "union' and imagine some horned alien force," said Greg Denier, the UFCW spokesperson. "Emory is a good old Southern boy."

Walden knew that Publix commanded amazing allegiance among its employees. But he found a weakness.

"For years we'd been hearing about the way they treated women," Walden said, in his folksy way. "We'd always just tell 'em to file an EEOC complaint or hire an attorney."

But the union had no way of proving that Publix was not promoting women fairly.

"Until someone came up with the idea to count the pictures," Walden said.

The pictures?

In each of its grocery stores, Publix had a tradition of hanging photographs of the store manager and assistant manager above the customer service counter. The stores also featured photos of the meat department and produce managers.

Using the most primitive methodology, a case for discrimination was built.

"My God, you'd go in the stores and you didn't need a clipboard to write down what you saw," Walden said. "It was all white guys on those pictures."

The survey found that 96 percent of store managers and assistant store managers were white men.

To publicize the results, news conferences were called across Florida, featuring a line-up of aggrieved organizations: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, and, of course, the UFCW.

"Publix store management is a bastion of the good old boys club," was one of the sound bites generated by the press conference. "They may as well post a sign in front of their store managers' office saying "white males only need apply.' "

Publix responded ferociously. It claimed the field study was a charade carried out by trespassing UFCW workers in their quest to ruin a company.

But the press conference worked.

Not only had Publix _ a company obsessed with controlling its wholesome image _ been tarnished in the media, but the UFCW received more calls from Publix women who claimed job discrimination.

Under the promise of confidentiality, Walden met these women in their kitchens or in roadside diners. Some felt guilty for talking. "I bleed green," one 30-year-Publix veteran said. Walden took notes and always asked, "Do you know someone else who will talk?"

"I heard stories that were mind-boggling," Walden said.

Between 1993-94, the UFCW would throttle up its campaign against Publix. It mailed out thousands of post cards, urging female employees to call its toll-free number to report discrimination. It passed out handbills inside Publix stores.

It even dangled the promise of riches:

"Two California retail food operators _ Lucky's and Albertson's _ have recently paid tens of millions of dollars in settlement for equal opportunity cases," one advisory from the UFCW Women's Network read. ". . . Publix workers have the same legal rights to take action for equal opportunity."

Gender bias suits were the new money gushers in the American courtroom, in particular, "glass ceiling promotion cases." Lucky Stores settled a gender discrimination case for $107-million. Albertson's settled a gender and race discrimination case for $29.4-million.

Grocery stores were getting hit hard because the structure of their workforce lent itself to statistical analysis. These numbers were at the heart of proving class-action discrimination claims.

A formula for suing grocery chains was being developed and perfected by a California law firm, Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, which negotiated the settlements from Albertson's, Lucky's and Safeway Stores.

Publix _ debt free and cash rich _ was a potential gold mine.

And the EEOC was still waiting for Publix to turn over its employment database.

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Melodee Shores lived in a double-wide at the end of a dirt road in Lakeland with her husband and two kids. For 12 years a Publix uniform hung in her closet. Her familiar green vest was retired, updated by the coral polo shirt. Shores was so gung-ho that co-workers called her "Miss Publix."

Her boosterism faded as she was passed over for promotions, year after year.

Store management gave her a tip: How about a brand new you?

"One of the privileges of being a woman is improving your looks with makeup," the assistant manager told her.

"It wouldn't hurt to lose 20 pounds," the store manager said.

At her 10-year banquet _ a Publix tradition _ Shores looked around and noticed the room was full of male managers. She later mentioned her observation to a store manager. He threatened to fire her if she brought it up again.

Was it paranoia or was Publix trying to get rid of her? While working at her cash register, she was told to take a customer's groceries out in the rain. She was asked to clean the women's bathroom.

In 1992, Shores took a one-month paid leave because of job stress. She finally quit her $10.20 an hour job, filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC office in Tampa.

In a statement that would later come to summarize the heart of the discrimination complaint against Publix, Shores said this:

"For the 12 years I worked there, I was told continually I was hired as a cashier and that that's what I was. And a man is hired as a bagger and then all of a sudden his title changes; he becomes part-time stockman, a stockman, etc., etc., up through the ranks of Publix. And it's not told to him that, "You're hired as a bagger and that's what you are.' "

Shores called more than 20 lawyers in the Lakeland area; no one would take on the hometown giant. She contacted the union. Emory Walden with the United Food and Commercial Worker's Union paid her a visit.

He told Shores about a group of lawyers who were working on a case against Publix.

Someone was finally doing it.

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The Tallahassee law office of Thomas A. Warren had a counterculture feel to it. Lawyers wore blue jeans and Birkenstocks to work, slipping into their suits for courtroom appearances. The laid-back atmosphere was a camouflage for a highly-tuned legal machine.

Tommy Warren has made history on a race discrimination lawsuit against Shoney's restaurant chain.

The evidence he dug up was mind-blowing. The Shoney's founder reshuffled the staff in some restaurants under the theory they were "too dark." He offered to match senior officers' contributions to the Ku Klux Klan. Managers were under order to fire black workers if they were too visible, especially in the dining rooms.

Just as the pretrial briefs were filed, moving the case toward the courtroom, the Nashville-based Shoney's agreed to settle in 1992 for a staggering $132.5-million.

It was the largest monetary recovery in a race discrimination case brought under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But while Warren worked around the clock on the Shoney's case, his office in Tallahassee began receiving some intriguing phone calls.

"We were busy with Shoney's, but this one caught my eye," said 48-year-old Warren.

The women worked at Publix Super Markets and claimed they could not get promoted. Some had stories of sexual harassment.

Warren believed he could make a case against Publix.

He was just scrappy enough to believe he could win.

In 1970, as a quarterback for Florida State University, "Touchdown Tommy" came off the bench to lead his team to five straight wins. After graduating from FSU law school, Warren worked as a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.

But in 1974, Warren and three others were caught by the Coast Guard on a shrimp boat near Cuba with $41,500 in U.S. currency, 61,000 Colombian pesos and three revolvers. A jury found Warren guilty of drug smuggling and federal currency charges. The currency conviction was overturned on appeal.

He spent 4{ months at a federal prison in the Panhandle. Six years later, after a letter-writing campaign from his supporters, the Florida Supreme Court decided Warren could practice law again.

With a sharp intellect and a passion for civil rights, Warren rose from the ashes and made history with the Shoney's case.

To tackle Shoney's, he had brought in as lead counsel the firepower of Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller.

The name alone made American corporations tremble. Dubbed by Business Week as the "SWAT team of bias litigation," the California law firm had negotiated big-purse settlements with Albertson's, Lucky's, State Farm Insurance and Denny's.

The Saperstein firm chooses its cases with great care, often spending a year researching a company before deciding to take it on. With Shoney's, that meant sending out graduate students to the restaurants to count the number and race of employees.

Grocery chains were their specialty. Publix would be next.

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With Publix, some of the advance work had been done.

The union had solicited gender discrimination complaints. The EEOC had filed its commissioner's charge.

Working for Warren was a 36-year-old lawyer, Sam Smith, who kept his unruly auburn hair tamed with gel. Though he possessed a surfer's sense of mellow, he was a meticulous litigator.

It was Smith's enormous task to gather witnesses against Publix.

The women and their stories were scattered all over Florida. By late 1994, a referral service was under way. The union and Emory Walden would funnel women to Smith. Smith would take sworn statements from women claiming discrimination.

Some of the women no longer worked for Publix; some did:

"It was not uncommon for me to hear that I was built like a brick s- - -house."

"(Bakery worker) sometimes came up behind me and, pressing his front against my back, whispered in my ear, "I want to f- - - you.' "

"At the store softball games he often said I should play "so your boobs can bounce when you run.' "

"(Bakery worker) yelled at me, "Box my f- - - - - - cheesecake now, b- - - -.' "

"The (nude) photos were also then circulated around to assistant managers, and to other department store managers."

"(Store manager) once stated that "women should only be nurses, secretaries and school teachers.' "

"On one occasion during a manager's meeting, (meat manager) sat down on the back of my chair and began to slide against my back down into the chair. Then he said, "Uh-oh, you're going to have to move. I'm getting a hard-on.' This brought great laughs from other male managers."

"At the meeting, I was asked to stand in front of the group and the three department managers held a sign over my head which read, "Young and Tender Chicken.' I was humiliated."

"They told me that I would not be able to do the job and that I would end up quitting because the job would be too physically demanding. They also said they had my best interest at heart in trying to keep me from pursuing this promotion."

"(Produce manager) came up to the front and started stabbing the paper towels, all the while cursing that women were "b- - - - - -.' "

"In approximately June 1990, I had oral surgery done. I went into work the next day and told (produce manager) I was not feeling well. He slapped me in the face, thinking it was funny. He ripped out my stitches."

All told, more than 200 sworn statements had been gathered. Twelve plaintiffs would eventually be chosen. Melodee Shores, who lived at the end of a dirt road in Lakeland, won the honor of being lead-off plaintiff because her EEOC complaint dated back to 1992.

The case would come to be known as Shores vs. Publix.

But a crucial piece of strategy remained: Where to file the lawsuit?

Lawyers considering such a decision often try to choose a federal district with judges they believe may be most sympathetic to their type of claim.

Of the three federal court districts in Florida, the attorneys in Shores vs. Publix picked Tampa.

The case was originally assigned to Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich.

But the attorneys had learned that there was already a gender bias case against Publix in federal court in Tampa. A former real estate tax manager who worked at Publix headquarters claimed she was fired because she complained about making less money than male co-workers.

The judge in this case? Henry Lee Adams Jr., an African-American who grew up in segregated Jacksonville, drinking from "colored only" water fountains. A man with first-hand knowledge of discrimination.

Under local rules of the federal court, the plaintiffs' attorneys asked to have the case transferred to Adams because he already had a Publix case on his docket that dealt with similar issues.

A few days later, they received in the mail the order of transfer. Judge Adams would preside.

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Publix did not sit quietly and watch the gathering storm.

It vociferously denied it was "channeling" women into certain jobs.

"No one has figured out a way for men to have babies," said Publix lead attorney, R. Lawrence Ashe Jr., of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Atlanta. "That is a matter of choice of those families. We don't seek to plumb all the reasons that a woman might not want to move long distances to seek a promotion, or work long hours."

To satisfy the media's questions about employment statistics, Publix said that women and minorities make up 30 percent of its management ranks.

But as court records would show, it was unclear exactly what that figure meant.

"When you used the term "minorities' when you told the press that Publix has a certain percentage of women and minorities in management, what did you mean?" an attorney asked Publix spokesperson Jennifer Bush.

"I don't know," Bush answered.

In 1994, the real math looked like this:

Of 468 Publix store managers, 10 were women.

Of 465 assistant store managers, 15 were women.

Of 1,169 second assistant managers, 139 were women.

Of 463 produce managers, 11 were women.

Of 456 meat managers, three were women.

Where women reigned at Publix was in the deli.

Of 433 deli managers, 390 were women.

From the begining, Publix focused its defense on the union's smear campaign.

"It is quite surprising that after a three-year massive campaign, with paid recruiters and 800 numbers, they have only come up with a couple of hundred malcontents," Ashe said.

This number is "infinitesimal," he said, compared to more than 100,000 women who have worked at Publix.

The defense team produced more than 1,200 statements from satisfied female Publix employees. Most of them raved about working conditions and claimed they had every opportunity for advancement.

"I have a young child to take care of and I do not want the extra hours and responsibilities right now."

"At this point in my life, I don't want to deal with being a manager."

"I have not expressed an interest in advancing yet because I do not think I am as good at decorating cakes the way Publix wants them decorated as I need to be a manager."

"(Store manager) came to me and asked me if I was interested in going into management, saying they thought I was capable; I told them no."

"I don't want the pressures of management. My husband is a manager at Publix and we both don't need all that pressure."

At a hearing at the federal courthouse in Tampa, Publix employees jammed the courtroom. Outside, more than a 100 female employees lined the sidewalk, waving "I Love Publix" signs and chanting cheers for their beloved employer.

But employment at Publix came to mean different things for different women, said Charles Burr, a Tampa lawyer who joined the plaintiffs' team.

"There is a group of women from little rural towns of Florida," Burr said. "To have a job with Publix was the best thing in the world. But for well-educated, ambitious, talented women who wanted to work their way up in a Fortune 500 company, it wasn't a good place to work."

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As court documents would reveal, some of the plaintiffs used dirty language, and often engaged in sexual horseplay with the same men they accused of harassing them.

Once, Deborah Crutcher asked a few of the guys in the bakery if they would like to see a tattoo of her mouse.

There was no tattoo, but Crutcher pulled down her pants at the hip.

"I don't see it," one of them said.

"I guess my p- - - - must have eaten it," Crutcher said.

Plaintiff Sue Sharp dropped to her knees in front of a male co-worker's trousers and said, "Baby Bird wants a worm."

At Sharp's deposition, a female attorney for Publix opened her briefcase and threw a banana on the conference table. She asked Sharp to demonstrate what she did with a banana in front of male co-workers.

"Can you show us today how you did that?"

"Objection!" shouted Sharp's attorney. "I'm going to instruct the witness not to do that."

"And did you put it as far down your throat as you could?" the attorney asked.

"Yes."

"And what was the purpose in doing that?"

"To fit in with the guys," Sharp answered.

The mood was tense and combative at most of the depositions.

Plaintiff Vicky Goodson said a manager had commented that she looked "busty" in a wedding dress.

"Was it accurate?" the Publix attorney asked.

"It was offensive," Goodson answered.

"Was it also accurate?" the attorney persisted.

While nine of the 12 plaintiffs claimed they were sexually harassed, the actual lawsuit dealt strictly with discrimination as it related to job promotion. Technically, getting fondled or grabbed or propositioned was not a part of the complaint against Publix.

But the anecdotes of harassment could prove effective in front of a jury.

Statistics are the heart of any class-action suit, "but you need real lives to bring the cold statistics to life," said Burr, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "Every lawsuit that goes to trial is like a play. You need a villain."

Many of the Publix managers accused of discrimination by the plaintiffs were forced to answer questions under oath.

Their answers were often revealing.

Plaintiff Janet McClung worked as a meat wrapper at an Orlando Publix. One day she asked her store manager why she had four years' experience and still only made $7.25 an hour, while a new man with no experience was hired at $7 an hour.

The store manager explained it this way: "When a young responsible man with a family comes in looking for a job, I'm going to pay him more because that's what it takes."

In this case, the "young responsible man with a family" had actually been fired twice by the Orlando Police Department for sexual misconduct.

At the Publix where Melodee Shores worked in Lakeland, a cashier brought in her baby one day, and the assistant manager asked if the child had ever been "butt-f- - - - -." When the cashier complained, Publix demoted the assistant manager to stockman and transferred him to another store, then later re-promoted him back into management.

"Even though (he) had this disciplinary problem while I was district manager, he certainly had much more experience and training for a management position than Mrs. Shores and was better qualified for the position at that time," the district manager stated.

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From the moment the lawsuit was filed in July 1995, Publix suffered a series of defeats in the courtroom, beginning with Judge Adams' ruling that the union involvement in the case was irrelevant.

In February 1996, Adams ruled that the EEOC could join the lawsuit against Publix.

The next month, in what would be the most crucial decision of the litigation, Adams ruled that the 12 plaintiffs could serve as representatives for approximately 100,000 women who have worked at Publix since 1991.

So there it was: the case was certified a class-action, knocking down the defense argument that the 12 women should file their grievances in 12 individual cases.

A more spiritual loss occurred a few weeks later in a Lakeland hospital, when George Jenkins died in his sleep at the age of 88.

Years earlier, a stroke had forced Jenkins to hand over the company to his oldest son, Howard.

While his father often arrived at work in his Lincoln Town Car, wearing golf clothes, and liked to stroll down the aisles of Publix stores to greet employees, Howard preferred research numbers and growth charts.

He even broke from tradition by leaving Lakeland and living with his family in south Tampa.

He threw out decades of stodgy ads featuring holiday fruitcakes, replacing them with lush TV commercials that captured the essence of Publix: family, back yards, food, reunions, journeys, the cycles of life. A Publix Christmas commercial with a Pat Methney soundtrack could make people weep.

But Jenkins preserved the conservative corporate culture he inherited. Before the 1994 elections, Publix stores distributed voter guides by Christian groups that pegged a candidate's positions on abortion, school vouchers, gay rights, welfare and voluntary prayer in schools.

Howard Jenkins spoke out on the lawsuit just once.

"These are isolated cases of women who want to blame their own failings on their gender rather than their own shortcomings," he said, at a rare public appearance after the lawsuit was certified a class-action.

+ + +

In November of 1996, there was more bad news from the courtroom.

In a harshly worded ruling, Judge Adams scolded Publix for using its company newsletters and videos to "discourage" female employees from joining the lawsuit. Adams himself wrote a bulletin that explained the lawsuit and ordered Publix to post it at each store next to the time clock.

In perhaps a strategic misstep, Publix appealed the judge's order. It was upheld by the higher court.

All this helped quicken the pace of mediation, which had been ordered by Judge Adams. By Thanksgiving, private meetings between attorneys stepped up. By January 1997, negotiations were going 16 hours a day, six days a week, in law offices in Tampa and Atlanta.

Two mediators presided over the proceedings, trying to help the parties find common ground.

"Employees typically begin mediation by demanding the maximum amount of money that they could recover at trial," said Charles Burr, an attorney on the plaintiffs' side. "Employers, on the other hand, typically begin by claiming that they don't owe a cent. Then it just becomes a matter of horse trading."

On Jan. 24, after 18 months of litigation, the team of lawyers emerged from their secret negotiations, exhausted and bleary-eyed.

Publix had agreed to pay $81.5-million.

That afternoon, a news conference was held on the 27th floor of the Barnett Tower overlooking the harbor of Tampa, on a brilliantly sunny winter day. In his soft voice, bathed by white lights from the TV cameras, Publix chairman Howard Jenkins read from a prepared statement.

"I want to emphasize there was no finding or admitting on the part of Publix of wrongdoing in this settlement. Publix has decided to enter into this agreement in the best interest of its employees, customers and shareholders."

Publix also agreed to pay the EEOC $3.5-million to satisfy claims of race bias.

In a question and answer session, Jenkins referred to the plaintiffs as "isolated individuals."

He said the cost of the lawsuit wouldn't affect his company's expansion plans this year for 44 new stores, an increase over last year.

When the subject of money arose, Publix treasurer Tina Johnson stepped forward.

"We're in great shape financially and will be able to pay this out of our normal cash flow," Johnson said brightly. "The money is in the bank."

Down below, in the 477 Publix grocery stores across Florida, in old stucco strip malls and glistening new plazas, Friday afternoon shoppers crowded the aisles, grabbing food for Super Bowl Sunday. Sirloin steaks were on special for $2.87 a pound and Tombstone frozen pizzas were going two for $5.

Just like that, it was over.

+ + +

The plaintiffs were like astronauts who had splashed down after months in space. Each would receive roughly $93,000 in the settlement.

But on the advice of their attorneys, who earned $18-million in the lawsuit, none of the plaintiffs would speak publicly until the final approval of the settlement at a May hearing. They remained silent chess pieces, part of a larger strategy, at least until the ink was dry on the checks.

Deborah Crutcher left a message on a reporter's answering machine after the settlement announcement:

"We still didn't get what we wanted," Crutcher said, "and that's an apology."

As part of the settlement, Publix agreed to make a number of changes, which the court will enforce for the next five years.

Publix scored a victory by maintaining its promotion-from-within policy. There will still be no postings for vacant jobs, but every six months a job candidate may register interest in pursuing other positions. Publix will pick a number of women to fill these jobs proportionate with the number applying.

A formal complaint process will be established so employees can resolve their disputes on sexual harassment issues. Equal employment training for management will be added, as well as job advancement programs for women.

At the Publix at South Pasadena, four of the women who say they suffered discrimination and harassment are no longer with the company. Plaintiff Pat Johnson remains as deli manager, and plaintiff Deborah Crutcher was transferred to the bakery at the Northeast Shopping Center Publix in St. Petersburg.

Bob Bouchard, the assistant bakery manager at the Publix in South Pasadena who was accused of sexual harassment, said in an interview early last week that he wished the lawsuit would have gone to trial.

"I'm not happy Publix bailed out of it," Bouchard said. "The women are in the wrong. I think they got away with it."

Bouchard, 53, denied he ever made obscene remarks to his associates. "They just lied, what can I say?" he said.

Court records show that Bouchard was disciplined in a written report in May 1994. "Bob must not make comments or use language that is sexual in nature," the store manager wrote. Bouchard received a raise two months later.

Calling a female co-worker "big floppies" is the only indiscretion Bouchard admits.

Why did he use that name?

"Because she had big boobs," Bouchard told the Times.

"Look," he explained, growing impatient with the questions, "I'm in the position now where I keep my head down and do my work. You really can't say anything to anyone any more, especially if you're dealing with women and blacks."

Bouchard was recently recommended by his supervisor, Michael Masi, for promotion to bakery manager.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

Gender of Publix management in 1994

Richard Drogin, professor of statistics, California State University, was hired as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. His figues are based on statistics provided by Publix in the lawsuit.

Salaries

Job title Total Men Women % of Men Women

women

Store manager 474 464 10 2.1% $77,767 $66,680

Store asst. 473 456 17 3.6% $52,148 $50,360

manager

2nd asst. 1,183 1,042 141 11.9% $33,783 $32,322

manager

2nd asst. 24 24 0 0.0% $35,317 $0

manager/produce

Produce manager 472 461 11 2.3% $44,351 $42,257

Asst. produce 306 294 12 3.9% $25,483 $24,724

manager

Meat manager 471 468 3 0.6% $58,831 $52,343

Asst. meat manager 470 463 7 1.5% $41,845 $38,543

Deli manager 466 43 423 90.8% $40,544 $40,544

Asst. deli manager 319 49 270 84.6% $27,216 $26,671

Bakery manager 438 350 88 20.1% $44,880 $41,849

Asst. bakery 357 246 111 31.1% $30,412 $29,659

manager

All managers 5,453 4,360 1,093 20.0%

Source: Dr. Richard Drogin

Big suits and big settlements

The settlement of the gender and racial discrimination cases against Publix are among many negotiated by the Oakland, Calif., law firm of Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller.

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