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Photo of Blast Furnace courtesy of Bessemer Historical Society

Eliza Quintana Thomas filed a gender discrimination grievance against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in July, 1979. The Women’s Liberation Movement reached its height in the 1970s. Before then, women more or less complacently accepted roles such as housewife, teacher, secretary, and nurse, although the tumultuous 1960s revolutionized attitudes toward sex, gender, and power. By the 1970s, women in cities increasingly challenged the status quo in career choices, entering fields that were traditionally male-dominated, such as the steel industry. By pursuing greater rights, the women’s movement created opportunities for women to claim urban spaces for daily use. In Pueblo, Colorado, the number of female employees in non-traditional fields burgeoned, but not without a fair number of gender discrimination suits filed. Change came with a price. Colorado Fuel and Iron Company had its share of female employees who wanted to buck the system and work for higher wages. Disgusted with discrimination and low-paying, dead-end jobs, large numbers of women began to take collective action in the 1970s.

Thomas was one such woman. Tired of her years as a food service worker, Ms. Thomas longed to do something more challenging, with the promise of higher wages as added incentive. So in 1979, she applied for and won a job as an employee at C F & I’s Blast Furnace in Pueblo. Unfortunately, Eliza’s tenure as a wage worker in a non-traditional, male-dominated field would be short-lived. On July 17, 1981, Ms. Thomas filed a grievance of gender discrimination against C F & I. Even though Eliza Thomas' case is a single example of discrimination against women by the company, it is representative of many others and serves to illustrate C F & I's attitude toward women in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ms. Thomas was placed on probation because she needed assistance lifting a box. When she was told by her supervisor that she would have to tote the load alone, she said that she would try, but that the sulfurous fumes and heat from the furnace bothered her. "Foreman B. Andrews testified that Foreman Shober informed him that the grievant [Eliza Thomas] was unable to do her assigned work, the crew had complained about doing her work, and she took excessive breaks. Foreman Shober had told the grievant on two occasions that she would have to do better on her job.” These statements were culled from Local Union #2102’s Step 3 Meeting on January 29, 1980, and they summarized the management’s position. The union did not agree, citing that “working at the Blast Furnace is a difficult, hot job, and the grievant did not have enough time to adjust.” The union also claimed that Ms. Thomas would have corrected any satisfactory work habits had she been notified to do so. The union also argued that on June 1, 1979, when Eliza Thomas was scheduled to be transferred to the Rail Mill, she was sent to the Blast Furnace instead. While changing a trough, she became sick with smoke inhalation. Speaking on her own behalf, Ms. Thomas testified that she had never been late or absent and had never refused to comply with management instructions. She had also never been warned concerning her work performance.

In summation, the management’s position was that it had an absolute right to discharge a probationary employee as long as it did not discriminate against the employee under circumstances set out in Article 12-D. The company maintained that there was no discrimination involved in this case and that the burden of proving the grievant was terminated during her probationary period because of her sex clearly rested upon the union. The union’s position was that the grievant was not afforded proper training, received no complaints or warnings concerning her performance, and was terminated without a sufficient adjustment period in the
Blast Furnace. The union noted that management had made an error in judgment and requested that the grievant be returned to employment.

Eliza Thomas’ case made it to the Regional Director, W. Bruce Gillis, Jr., of the National Labor Relations Board, Region 27, in Denver, Colorado. Unfortunately for Eliza, Leslie Sniff, President of the United Steelworkers of America, Local #2102, withdrew the charges made against Colorado Fuel and Iron Company on November 25, 1981. While not giving the reason for withdrawal, one can surmise that the grievant in this case, Eliza Thomas, chose not to pursue the case that had already dragged out over a year and a half. Perhaps the mental suffering and anguish were too great. Perhaps there were financial factors involved. At any rate, this was a case that pitted a young, Hispanic woman against a company that was male-dominated and apparently hostile toward females in traditionally male occupations, such as those at the Blast Furnace. Eliza’s misfortunes were simply indicative of the kinds of problems pioneering women suffered as they tried to break into occupations that were heretofore exclusively male.