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Guthrie Theater loses NLRB case in #MeToo labor dispute

Molly Diers said she had complained for years to Guthrie executives about policy violations.

Molly Diers said she had complained for years to Guthrie executives about policy violations.

A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge has ruled that the Guthrie Theater violated federal labor law in 2017 by downgrading the performance review of Molly Diers, a carpenter then working in the Guthrie's scene shop, in response to her complaints regarding a sexist backstage culture.

The theater has been ordered to rescind a portion of the performance review and to admit its culpability in the matter.

"I've made a win for women standing up for themselves in workplaces, because this case could be cited in future cases," Diers told MPR News. "It is huge — I mean, I'm trying not to be emotional, but it's a really big deal!"

According to MPR, "Guthrie Theater management said it respectfully disagrees with the ruling, but will not appeal the decision."

The case has drawn national attention, given the Guthrie's high profile and the events' relevance to the #MeToo movement. American Theatre magazine digested Diers' case in a feature on theater professionals nationwide fighting a "culture of silence" around these issues. Still, the new NLRB decision marks new legal vindication for Diers, who previously saw an arbiter and the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights issue decisions favoring the Guthrie.

Diers resigned from her position at the Guthrie in January 2018, sharing her decision in a Facebook post that went viral.

"The Guthrie as an organization breeds a culture that has kept and continues to keep women down," Diers wrote in the post. A male scene shop colleague, Nate Saul, resigned in solidarity. Both had applied for a supervisory position that was filled by another candidate, and Diers said she lacked faith that the scene shop culture would improve.

In a 30-page decision dated July 5, Judge Melissa M. Olivero details the history of Diers' case as revealed by testimony and evidence presented before the court. Starting in 2016, Diers began voicing concerns about "a sexist culture in the scene shop," Olivero writes. Diers described "disrespect and dismissive treatment of women," citing examples like a "rape joke" being told in a meeting.

Until her resignation, Diers was a prominent behind-the-scenes voice calling for a culture change in the scene shop. Although steps were taken to address her concerns — the NLRB decision cites "mandatory trainings on subtle sexism," for example — Diers felt she was being stigmatized as a whistle-blower. The internal atmosphere grew tense. Olivero describes a November 2017 meeting between Saul and Jean Leuthner, then director of human resources at the Guthrie:

Leuthner said that every time an issue was brought to her attention, she acted on it. Leuthner went on to ask Saul how much of situation [sic] Diers was bringing on herself by being so angry and negative all the time. Saul became very angry and began yelling at Leuthner. Saul yelled, "Was her skirt too short? Was she asking for it? You're blaming the victim." Leuthner responded that this was not her intention.

The NLRB's decision hinges on Diers' 2017 performance review, in which her supervisor, then technical director Josh Peklo, determined Diers "did not meet expectations" in the area of effective communication.

"I appreciate that you are direct in communication but it is not always in the most constructive tone," Peklo wrote in the evaluation. "i.e. Defensive in morning meetings, not assuming best intentions with engineering or design approaches presented etc."

"This downgraded performance evaluation was clearly meant to chill Diers' exercise of protected, concerted activity," wrote Olivero in the decision, ordering the Guthrie to strike that section of Diers' evaluation from their records and to distribute a notice to employees admitting that "we violated federal labor law," reminding employees of their rights to organize and speak up.

The statement includes a pointed reference to Leuthner's reported statement that Diers, in the manner she raised concerns, was not being a "team player."

"WE WILL NOT threaten you," reads the notice, "by stating that employees who raise protected, concerted concerns are not team players."