What’s Class Got to Do with It?

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part Two

Lawyers made me dumb.

Or maybe it was all in my own head.

Serving on the board of a law firm with a bunch of high-powered lawyers turned me from an articulate leader to a person who doubted my own abilities.

The non-profit law firms, Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and Employment Law Center (ELC) partnered with my organization Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) on critical projects during the 1980s. Our goal was equity in employment and specifically integrating the construction trades which had excluded women and people of color from high-paying jobs.

I loved the lawyers at ERA because they thought outside the box. They understood that social movements cannot be all about litigation and they were willing to work with us to try other tactics.

Sometime during the ‘80s, after having worked together on a lawsuit, I was invited to lunch by the director, Nancy Davis and staff attorney Judy Kurtz (it was a cheap Mexican place South of Market near the ERA offices). They sat me down and asked if I would like to join the ERA board of directors. I was delighted. I was surprised. I was flattered. Could they really want a tradeswoman activist to sit on their board with a bunch of big law firm attorneys? Of course I said yes.

I was no stranger to boards of directors. TWI had been a 501(c)3 since 1979 and I served on its board. At that time, I was also on the board of Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) along with another tradeswoman, carpenter Tere Carranza. But this was different. I would be the lone blue-collar worker among 10 or 15 attorneys. I did understand that my role on the board would be “client representative” and I was happy that ERA sought out such representation. I vowed to be the best client rep ever.

Rooms with a View

ERA board meetings took place in the high-rise offices of big San Francisco law firms where the board members worked, usually in the boardroom, always with an impressive view of the city. I could not stop oooing and ahhing and realized I never would have gotten into these exclusive places otherwise (except that as an electrical inspector I sometimes got to inspect high-rise construction sites). Occasionally they would be held in the crowded, run down ERA offices in the slummy South of Market neighborhood.

Unlike the TWI board meetings, where the board doubled as the staff (we called it a working board), ERA board meetings benefited from staff backup. We got a packet of material with minutes, agenda and background information. We got the benefit of expert consultants’ advice. Meetings were well organized and informative. I rarely had much to say.

My presence was more useful for fundraising. I would come to meetings with foundation program managers dressed in Carhartts, hard hat in hand, a real live example of ERA’s final product—a woman with a high paying trades job. My individual fundraising contacts were few, and I had already maxed out the contacts I had. Friends, I feared, would avoid me on the street so as not to be asked for money to support TWI, which was always in debt.

Still, I could make calls to moneyed folks when a list was handed to me during fundraising campaigns. We usually worked in pairs, and one time I sat at lunch with my comrade and asked a patron for $10,000 (we got it).

These forays into the world of wealthy lawyers sparked a range of mixed feelings and increased my awareness of class. I was constantly comparing the wealth of ERA (actually a rather poor nonprofit) to the poverty of TWI whose continued existence its board of directors was also responsible for. I wished I could take the list of potential donors and ask them to support TWI (I never did, of course). I knew I could make a good case. The truth was that our two organizations collaborated and we were all better for it.

I was already conscious of the class differences between me and the other ERA board members, but the difference in the fortunes of the two organizations strained them further. I was the poor relative, grateful for any crumbs that came my way. The feeling was especially magnified when we met with foundations. I remember a meeting with the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation at a time when Tradeswomen’s fortunes were sagging, one of the several times the organization nearly went under for lack of funding. The Rockefeller woman was young, chatty, dressed in fashionable New York attire (I wore my electrician work clothes). I felt so desperate in her presence that I had to keep myself from prostrating myself at her feet to beg for money. 

Poor Forlorn and Angry

I had taken on the identity of my poor failing organization. I felt poor and forlorn—and angry.

During my years on the ERA board I did speak up occasionally when I thought a working class or lesbian voice needed to be heard. Lawyers, even progressive ones, can be conservative. One time the board president, who was a woman of color, gave me a dressing down right in the meeting. 

“You are not the only person here who has faced discrimination,” she admonished me. Her public criticism stung. I honestly don’t know what I’d said to set her off. But I suddenly became aware of resentment flowing toward me and wondered if others on the board shared her feelings. I had thought myself a powerless person in this group. Suddenly I had power, if only negative power.

The ERA staff did appreciate my perspective and when the board president stepped down I was asked to take the position. But I had lost confidence in myself and I turned it down. What had happened to me? I certainly knew how to run a meeting, a skill I’d perfected as a kid in 4-H. I’d been leading meetings of tradeswomen for years.

Blow Up

I had never been close to the staff, or board of ERA for that matter. Staff attorney Judy Kurtz and I had a good professional relationship; we had worked together on many projects. Then, as happens with so many organizations, the founder’s impending retirement in part led to a blow up. The suggested reorganization didn’t work; the woman chosen for a newly created position was, as they say, a bad fit. I confess when I tried to discuss tradeswomen’s issues with her, she seemed clueless. Some staff resented not being considered for the position. In good faith, the leadership had hired outside the staff, seeking more diversity. But we suddenly realized how fragile relationships within the organization had become. I quickly got to know the staff and talked to them trying to understand what was happening. It was a mess. (Another issue was the plan to hire part time staff, possibly to avoid paying benefits.) Everybody was pissed off and some relationships never recovered. When the board, looking for a scapegoat, took aim at Judy, I resigned.

Tradeswomen Inc.’s relationship with ERA continued after I left the board, but the new board of directors had different ideas about the mission and goals of the law firm. They eschewed any activities not related to policy and litigation. ERA had been the leader in building coalitions within the civil rights community. For a small organization and constituency like tradeswomen, association with a larger civil rights community was necessary to achieve even notice, let alone long-term change. We felt privileged to be part of coalitions working to achieve racial and gender justice.

Also, all of us were aware that the power of organizations like ours was concentrated in the East. We were doing amazing work out here in the West, but few policy makers noticed. 

Noticed by Ford 

Tradeswomen continued to push ERA to help us fight discrimination in the building trades, and we got a chance at new programs when the Ford Foundation took notice in the early 2000s. The program manager was a friend of someone and that’s how we got an interview with her. ELC was also interested in the promised $600K. Tradeswomen participated in meetings, but program ideas seemed vague. We kept trying to get a better sense of them. The ERA rep who was working with us came with us to Denver for a national tradeswomen conference. All was happy. We were sisters in struggle. Only later did we find out that ERA was awarded the money with no stipulations to create programs for tradeswomen. We felt used by ERA. ELC got left out of the loop and this resulted in strained relations between the two law firms. Some staffers cut ties with ERA entirely. All over money. Of course, Tradeswomen had learned this lesson in the past. Funders, and especially the federal government, make all of our organizations compete for a tiny sum of money they allocate to programs. 

Lessons for the Future

What did we learn from our years’-long collaboration with ERA and ELC? 

*Small organizations like Tradeswomen need to find partners. We can’t do it alone.

*Litigation can be crucial to civil rights movements, but cannot be the only tactic.

*Relationships are important, more important than money. 

*In our “classless society” class is still a thing.

Author: Molly Martin

I'm a long-time tradeswoman activist, retired electrician and electrical inspector. I live in Santa Rosa, CA. molly-martin.com. I also share a travel blog with my wife Holly: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.

2 thoughts on “What’s Class Got to Do with It?”

  1. such important perspective. thanx for sharing how difficult our tasks have been from the get go. Capitalism rears its ugly head at every turn and class the word never mentioned except by the likes of you. fighting over crumbs daily. ugh

    Liked by 1 person

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