Joan Weir: The Only Girl in the Welding Shop

In 1972, a junior in high school, she had already taken all the drafting classes her Los Angeles school offered. She’d been working with her father building a car so she took her father’s advice and enrolled in the welding class. The teacher said if she could fire up a torch she could stay in the class. It was a test no one else had to take. She was the only girl.

Joan production welding light poles for the Bay Bridge, 1976

She took the class and got hooked on welding. The first year she excelled so much she was teaching the other students how to weld. By her senior year she was shirking all her other classes, spending days in the machine shop building projects. That year she won a national award from the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation for TIG welding brass but she didn’t graduate high school. Joan Weir was a welding phenom.

That summer she got her first job. It was piecework building motorcycle accessories. She said, “They needed someone who could TIG (tungsten inert gas) weld. That was new technology back then. It’s an electric spark that comes out of a piece of tungsten, where you can weld ferrous and non-ferrous materials and it’s like a fine art because it’s a smaller weld you’re making.”

Again she was the only female on the job. “I was welding in a metal building where it was well over 90 degrees. I remember lifting my welding hood to find that my sleeve was on fire. I looked down the line and all the guys were just watching. They weren’t helping me. They just wanted to see me take my shirt off. Of course I had a T-shirt on underneath so it was so ridiculous.”

I first met Joan Weir in the late 1970s. With our mutual friend, Cheryl Parker, we bonded as some of the few early tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cheryl and I got into the electrical trade and Cheryl had attained the rank of Chief Building Inspector in the city of Richmond, California when she died of ovarian cancer in 1992. In 1976 Joan and Cheryl had traveled with a convoy of tradeswomen and their supporters to Los Angeles to petition the state government for affirmative action goals and timetables for women in construction apprenticeship.

L-R Cheryl Parker, Joan MacQuarrie, Joan Weir

“It was a great moment because we were standing up and talking about what we were experiencing and each one of us had a different story. We got the state of California to enact goals and timetables.”

I think of Joan as a Renaissance woman. She has been a general contractor, a carpenter, a plumber, a glass blower and many other things. But Joan is primarily a welder. She lost her career and nearly her life after being set up to blow up.

In 1980 Joan was working for US Steel in Pittsburg, California as a maintenance welder. To get the job she took a welding test.

“My test was so perfect that they could not refuse to hire me so their recourse was to put me in the ugliest location, which was the cold reduction department,” she said.

“It was located in a building a mile long. We had four mills that ran consecutively. The steel was brought in in large rolls and was run through each mill to make it thinner. Each roll was a ton maybe two tons at the very end. It was called cold reduction because heat was not being applied. Rollers compressed each sheet as it went through. Water and oil were the lubricants. Next-door was an acid dip where they would roll the big sheets of steel through acid to clean them. As a maintenance welder I led a team of two millwrights and two steamfitters. And jointly we would move on a weekly rotating basis from working days, swing, and graveyard shifts.

US Steel plant, Pittsburg, CA. Credit: Wikipedia

We kept the mill running 24/7. These machines were put under a lot of pressure and they would break. The millwrights were in charge of keeping the mill running and the pipefitters would fix any of the piping, which was typically hydraulic whether it was water or air. My job as the welder was to weld any metal part that broke and I also built anything that they would need to install.

It was up to the welder to determine the time length of the repair and if it exceeded three or four hours then they would shut down the mill and all the workers on the mill would be sent home. So it was imperative to not have that happen because the union required that if the worker had already worked four hours then they would get full pay even if sent home. That would cost big bucks. I must admit I always enjoyed saying ‘Nope send your guys home. It’s gonna take at least five or six hours to repair.’

The environment at the plant was extremely unsafe. Cranes carried the large steel rolls over people’s heads. Workers died on a regular basis from the hooks breaking or the roll getting loose. Large forklifts with large extended poles on them carried the rolls along where workers were walking. And because of the extreme noise you could be walking, turn, and not realize that a forklift was right there on top of you. People were hurt on a number of occasions while I worked there.

At US Steel in 1980 it felt like we were working back in the 30s and 40s. Workers were constantly being harassed in many different ways and if you were to go up against management you were likely to end up hurt or killed. That was known. That was just a given.

After the accident Joan learned glass blowing

The United Steelworkers union covered everybody so if you had a problem with a co-worker the union couldn’t side with one worker or another so it didn’t feel like you had representation–especially as a woman.

I was the only woman welder in the plant, the whole steel industry in Pittsburg. I led a team–two very supportive pipefitters and then two millwrights who were not supportive. This one individual who was a short guy, white, Mormon, had a real issue taking orders from a woman. But I was the team leader and I got paid more.

The atmosphere in the cold reduction department was tense, unsafe and the work was really demanding. Also the air quality was really bad because we were stuck inside a building that had lots of water and oil mixed into the air we were breathing. We would get inside a mill, literally placing ourselves inside this big machinery, going down into the bowels of it. I never felt very safe going there because I knew this guy didn’t like me. I never expected him to do me physical harm but I worried that he might cause an accident.

Joan in her shop at her present job at the vineyard

A firefighter was required to stand by while I was working, as my clothing would catch fire on a regular basis because of the oil that was constantly coating us. We got used to welding this way. You’d turn, stop welding, ask the fire guy to shoot you with water, he’d douse your clothes and you’d go back to welding again.

One night I was working graveyard so it was a small crew throughout the building. I was welding something up in my weld shop and had to go get some material and I came back to find this guy using my welding hood and welding on my bench. I shouted to him because of the loud machinery and he stopped, he put up the hood, and he back-fisted me. He hit me across my face so hard that I landed against my welding tanks and my hardhat split open.

Two of the other guys on my team came to see what happened. I was injured so the supervisor was called. He sent me home and he let my attacker stay on shift. I was told to come back the following morning for a meeting with the shop steward and the guy who physically attacked me. The shop steward just said that this was something we had to get over.

At that point I contacted an attorney and they told me to take whatever sick time I had and to get off site because it was not safe for me to be there. So I took my week’s leave and then I started calling in and saying that the environment was not safe for me to work in.

Birthday present
A Rosie the Riveter hood

When I showed up for work again it was swing shift on Easter Sunday. There was an emergency. A pipe had bent and needed to be repaired. I had a new pipefitter working with me so we didn’t know each other. First I asked him if he had put the safety blocks in the line because this was a high-pressure hydraulic two-inch line. Then we climbed down the sheet steel that was in the way, down into this pit and I’m up to my knees in oil and hydraulic fluid. The pipe is above the hydraulic fluid. I’ve got my firefighter up above the pit and the pipefitter is down in the pit with me and we get ready to weld it up. I light my big oxy-acetylene rosebud torch to heat the pipe and all of a sudden somebody turns on the line, pressurizes it and there’s an explosion.

My head is literally right over the pipe when it explodes. I don’t realize I’m burnt all over my head with second and third degree burns. I scramble back up the torn up steel next to me to get to my acetylene set up to turn off those valves because I’m afraid of backfire in the lines. I see the pipefitter is burnt so I grab him to get him over to the safety shower and the safety shower doesn’t work. I see a water fountain and I get him to the water fountain and I get his hands into the water and he says ‘you’ve got to get yourself water’ and at that point I start to recognize how burnt I am.

We’re brought into the lunchroom. After 45 minutes or an hour, they finally get us to the hospital, which is unable to provide critical care. So they bring me back to the cold reduction plant. At that point my eyes are shut, I can’t see. My face doesn’t have skin on it.

Nobody responded or cared how badly I was hurt. The head of the department was there and he said that I should go home. They told me only to show up for a safety hearing the following morning. Then the guard, an African American man, looked at me and said ‘I will take you home.’ He risked his job going off shift leaving early to drive me home. When I got home my partner took me to Alta Bates hospital burn unit where they kept me for a week.

She still builds

My lawyer and I went to a hearing with the EEOC. My face was still recovering from the burns but the hearing was simply about being hit by a co-worker on the job. It wasn’t about the explosion accident.

EEOC would have found in my favor but the EEOC officer asked me if I was going to take it to federal court and sue US Steel and not knowing any better I said yes. I didn’t understand that it would take five years to even get to court and I was going up against a major corporation. It would cost me and I was unemployed. So they found against me because they said if they’d found for me I couldn’t take it to court. So I lost my suit. And that ended my career in welding.

OSHA never found out about the accident. About a year later I was volunteering for Tradeswomen Inc. with Madeline Mixer at her Women’s Bureau office in the San Francisco federal building. Madeline took me down the hall to talk to the head of OSHA who was upset with me that I never contacted them. I didn’t know that I was responsible to contact them. So nothing ever happened to US Steel.

I never learned who turned the pressure back on. We all understood that US Steel was known for killing or maiming workers who complained. And that’s the way the industry ran back in those days.”

Teresa (L) and Joan at the Rosie the Riveter contest in Richmond

For many years after the accident, Joan looked like a reverse raccoon, her face red where the skin had burned off and white around her eyes, which had been protected by plastic safety glasses (they melted). Today, 39 years later, you can’t see the burns unless she points them out. Joan still loves welding and she uses her many skills at her current job working at a vineyard in Sonoma County. In her spare time she teaches beekeeping and building trades to women and girls. She lives in Santa Rosa with her wife Teresa Romaine, a retired painting contractor.

Why Appointments Matter

In my world of tradeswomen, unions, building trades, apprenticeship and worker safety, the appointments made by governors and presidents matter. The people who actually do the work of government, the staff that we community-based organizations seek to partner with, influence the success of our missions and the strategies we employ a great deal.

Me and Amy Reynolds posing as Rosies at a Rosie the Riveter event
Me and Amy Reynolds posing as Rosies at a Rosie the Riveter event

In the week after the election, comparing Trump to the one-time California governor, my good friend suggested that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t so bad after all. He was pretty bad, I said.

My friend hadn’t had to work with people in the state government during the Schwarzenegger administration but I did and I know what happened in our state. It wasn’t just that our governor was accused of manhandling women and fathered a child out of wedlock with his maid. I would certainly prefer that men who have so little regard for women not be elected to office. But I’m most concerned with the people they appoint to government positions and the policies they promote and enact.

Before our Democrat governor Gray Davis was overthrown by a Republican cabal financed by Daryl Issa, I had been working with people in the Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) and its parent the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) to help women enter the construction trades through union apprenticeships. We rejoiced when one of our own was appointed to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a black man who had been the apprenticeship director for the painters union. I had met him when we were interviewed together on a public TV program. By that time, Tradeswomen had been fighting with the DAS to pressure them to enforce state affirmative action regulations for decades. We had even filed a lawsuit against the department in 1981, which got us little. But Henry Nunn understood the necessity of overcoming the sexist racist hiring practices in the building trades and he brought on a staff that really cared about these issues. Our nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., built a great working relationship with these folks who took seriously their pledge to make working people’s lives better.

During Davis’ administration, we proposed to the DAS staff that we work together on projects promoting apprenticeship around the state. State regulated union apprenticeships offer the best training and highest paid jobs in construction. Among our joint projects was an apprenticeship fair for high school students that included women and girls that the DAS planned to roll out around the state.

After Governor Davis was recalled, Henry Nunn and his staff lost their jobs. Schwarzenegger, an actor with no government experience, essentially replaced department heads with the previous Republican governor Pete Wilson’s people. Republicans, in the state and nationally, have shown little interest in our issues or in enforcing affirmative action regulations. Under Republican administrations working people and tradeswomen have suffered.

When Jimmy Carter was president, tradeswomen were optimistic that new affirmative action regulations would increase our numbers, and they did. It turns out having the federal government in your corner is a huge advantage. We had reason to hope that women would soon achieve a critical mass in the construction trades.

Sister electricians at the Women Building the Nation conference
Sister electricians at the Women Building the Nation conference

And then came Reagan. At a recent exhibit of his photos of striking fruit pickers, journalist David Bacon reminded us that 40 percent of union workers voted for Reagan. Talk about voting against your own interests! Reagan had made his reputation as a union buster, so it was no surprise when the first thing he did was start busting unions. He also immediately began to dismantle and defund job training and affirmative action programs.

Tradeswomen saw that women and minorities were being targeted but still we attempted to work with the administration. At one point in the early 1980s, plumber Amy Reynolds even arranged for us to meet with Reagan’s Department of Labor representative, a guy named John Fox, who sat down with us in our tiny office in the Tenderloin. He seemed proud that he had had no prior experience with labor issues. He had been a basketball star (he said) who had worked on Reagan’s election campaign. Fox, and others in Reagan’s Labor Department we later met with in Washington DC, made it clear that their priority was to disempower unions. Because apprenticeship programs are joint projects of unions and industry, they intended to rid the system of union influence. They referred to construction jobs as “men’s work.”

Now, a month after the election of Trump, I suspect my friend is past hoping that he “won’t be so bad.” His appointments are looking far worse than Reagan’s. It’s fair to say that Trump’s appointments violate every ethical standard and it’s easy to predict that women, minorities, working people and all Americans except the 1% will be the losers.

Susie Suafai: Still Advocating

“Why didn’t the women’s movement ever embrace our struggle to bring women into nontraditional jobs? I never understood that and I still don’t.”

Susie Suafai, a longtime tradeswomen advocate, posed this question to me at the Women Build Nations conference in Chicago last spring. I can’t always catch up with Susie in the San Francisco Bay Area so I was happy to find her sitting alone at the conference where 1500 tradeswomen and allies convened in Chicago April 29-May 1, 2016. I sat down with her and learned things about her that I had never known in all our 35 years of working together.

conftable
Susie (R) working registration at the Women Build California Conference

Susie is a large woman, now with graying hair, and still formidable. She punctuates sentences with a chuckle. I guess she’s mellowed as she’s aged, but I remember her as powerful, brusque, businesslike, intimidating and a bit cynical. It seemed to me that arranging a meeting with Susie was like consulting the Oracle. She was the goddess of employment development. Susie was, and is, the one who understood the big picture, employment trends on a regional scale. Early on she learned the workings of the apprenticeship system, and understood them better than the men who ran it. I remember a workshop that Susie led in the mid-70s. She laid out the complicated apprenticeship system for us tradeswomen activists, taught us who were the men in power and how to approach them with our demands. Susie was passing on what she had learned to a generation of feminist activists.

Susie Suafai came to California via American Samoa and Hawai’i. She was studying   history at San Francisco State University and fell into a job at Advocates for Women when she was asked to help prepare women for apprenticeship testing in 1974. Advocates, in San Francisco, had won one of two demonstration grants from the US Department of Labor to see if women could be recruited to construction work. The other was in Denver, Colorado. These were the first two federally funded experiments to recruit women to do this work. Susie went on to help place hundreds of women into union construction apprenticeships in the Bay Area and she later became the director of Women in Apprenticeship Program, which had spun off from Advocates for Women in 1976. She also spent about five years in Los Angeles working at the Century Freeway Project recruiting women into the trades. Electrician and filmmaker Vivian Price made a film about that project, called Hammering It Out. Susie was planning to be a history teacher but she ended up being an employment advocate, and there are many tradeswomen who credit her with creating their careers.

We are about the same age. I’m in my mid-60s and I am retired as an electrician and an electrical inspector but Susie continues working at her trade of employment advocacy. She’s now working part-time for Tradeswomen Inc. to invent new ways to bring women into the construction trades.

25thanny
Madeline Mixer, Susie and I being honored at Tradeswomen Inc.’s 25th anniversary gala in 2004

Now, about Susie’s question, which is also my question: why didn’t the women’s movement embrace the tradeswomen’s movement? First, when people criticize the women’s movement for leaving out tradeswomen, I always object. I say we were the women’s movement and we are the women’s movement. I never felt separate from the women’s movement. I always felt like I was in the middle of it, like I was part of it.

Like Susie, as a young feminist I thought that employment was the bottom line for women. If you couldn’t get a decent paying job you could not be independent. A young woman in my history workshop at the conference voiced the issue. “If you have a good job, you don’t have to depend on a man. Once you have a trade, you can be financially independent.” It’s the same thing we said to each other in 1970.

My mother had very few choices and worked as an underpaid secretary all her life. My generation had some better choices but not many. Most often cited were teacher, nurse or secretary. In the 1970s I found other feminists who agreed with me about the importance of work. We founded organizations and allied with lawyers and advocates willing to help us fight for laws and regulations to end employment discrimination.

Though I participated in the other struggles of the feminist movement for abortion rights, for childcare, for equality in marriage, for an end to rape and discrimination, I still felt the jobs issue was primary. And for women who did not have access to a college education, trades jobs and jobs in the construction industry made a whole lot of sense. Ours was an anti-poverty movement. We talked a lot about what we called the feminization of poverty. Statistics showed that female single heads of households were getting poorer. We thought introducing women to trades jobs could reduce that trend.

Our issue was not at the top of the feminist movement’s list and I think there were many factors that contributed to invisibility. Partly it’s about class. The leaders of the feminist movement, mostly college-educated women, could not imagine themselves doing construction work and they probably did not have family members who were construction workers. Few of us knew how much money union construction workers made. For many Americans the idea of working construction was considered a step down. But workers with union contracts make more money than nonunion workers. And, in general, “men’s jobs” pay far more money than “women’s jobs.” Susie figures she would have made a lot more money in construction than she did in the nonprofit world.

It wasn’t like tradeswomen didn’t try to fit into feminist coalitions. I made many attempts to collaborate with other women’s organizations like NOW and like the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women (COSW) of which I was a member in the 1990s. They didn’t brush me off, but they already had other projects. COSW was focused on domestic violence, a cause championed by local lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and they had created a successful network of organizations. It made sense to not spread ourselves too thin. But at least I was able to expand COSW’s attention to the issue of on-the-job sexual harassment, a universal concern of tradeswomen.

Tradeswomen collaborated with feminist lawyers—in the Bay Area Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center—to secure rights to equal employment. In these efforts we had great success during the 1970s. We joined in coalition with racial minorites to fight the dismantling of affirmative action laws and regulations. In this, too, we were mostly successful. But having laws and regulations on the books is useless when they are not enforced, a strategy employed by Reagan/Bush. At that point the returns on our activism diminished, as did our support.

Funders didn’t take us seriously. I remember traveling to New York in the early 90s and meeting with the Ms. Foundation seeking funding for our efforts. The young woman I met with seemed anxious to find a way to not fund us and to get me out of her office. She categorized our organizations as “associations” and so not fundable. But I felt her rejection had more to do with other factors.

The barriers to women in the construction industry were seen as too great to spend resources on for too little gain. In fundraising meetings with the Women’s Foundation in San Francisco Tradeswomen Inc. was told that projects they had funded to support getting women into the trades had failed in the past and they had decided too few women were impacted by these projects. Many just did not think it was possible for women to do these jobs and to be happy doing them. But maybe that’s because most of the organizers couldn’t see themselves being happy doing them. They (and we) had internalized sexism and self hate. But organizers were also practical. They (and we) strategized to find ways to impact the greatest number of women.

A big part of our campaign to get women into the construction trades rested on the ability to get the word out to women about the money that could be made in these jobs. We needed the help of feminist and labor media to spread the word. Until the turn of the 21st century labor unions in the trades wanted nothing to do with us. We were accused of taking men’s jobs. But I think feminist publications could have made more of an effort to tell our story. Whenever an article did appear in a publication with a big subscription base (as in Ebony), hundreds of inquiries came in. High wages were a big draw. But traditional women’s magazines were only interested in matters of style, such as makeovers for women with “hard hat hair.”

Our fortunes changed after President Jimmy Carter left office. While some nontraditional jobs like bus driver began including women, we soon realized our efforts at integrating the construction trades were failing after Reagan took office in 1981 and began dismantling affirmative action programs.

Susie corrected me: “It’s true we lost footing during the second half of Reagan’s administration but we also made some headway in the first four years of his administration. At the end of the day, Title VII (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) was and is the law of the land and we were willing to and are still willing to challenge under Title VII.” It’s this optimism that keeps Susie going, and the conviction that we can still improve the lives of women by helping them make careers in the trades.

In retrospect, whether or not we were dissed by the women’s movement seems a moot point. The women’s movement was an amorphous collection of activists with little money and few institutions. The partner with real money and power that could have helped our movement succeed is the federal government. The institutions we built in the 1970s never recovered from Reagan’s slashing of affirmative action and job training programs. I believe our efforts to bring a critical mass of women (at least ten percent) into construction trades would have succeeded if the Carter Administration’s programs that we fought so hard for had been left in place. As it is, the percentage of workers in the construction trades who are female has stayed at around two percent, roughly the same as it was in 1981 when Reagan took office.

Canadian Women Working

Vancouver, BC

CarlaCement
Carla is a cement mason and a first aid captain. When I noted her pink hard hat, she said, “It was free.”

Look up in this city of highrises and you will see cranes. There’s lots of construction going on and presumably lots of jobs for construction workers. As in the States, I’m always on the lookout for women, and I found quite a few here. Most of the women I saw were flaggers, just like at home. But I did run into a cement mason on the street, so I’m confident there are many more women inside the buildings working in different trades.

On our way to the west coast of Vancouver Island, we saw women working at non-traditional jobs on the BC Ferries, a public/private partnership. High voltage line workers were upgrading poles and lines along Highway 4 on the island, and I wondered if any of them were electrician sisters.

Just from my little anecdotal evidence, I think Canada is surpassing the US in breaking down barriers to women in construction. The signs are better here, too. Most are in a universal sign language that doesn’t require words. We saw not a single sign that said MEN WORKING.

Advice from an Old Tradeswoman Activist

  1. Know your friends and know your enemies. Tradeswoman organizations are our friends, even when they are applying for the same funding. Those who want to keep us barefoot and pregnant and not allow us to work are our enemies. They will always try to divide us. Do not let them.

 

  1. Discrimination makes us crazy (and sick and angry). Sometimes we are called upon to support crazy women and tradeswomen organizations must be there for women when we are crazy.

 

  1. Tradeswomen are part of a larger movement for Civil Rights. We have more power when we coalesce with other people and organizations.

 

  1. Our community is small. Activists in the Tradeswomen Movement must know that you will encounter over and over the same people who are also active in the Movement. Build bridges, don’t burn them.

 

  1. One woman can change everything. In most cities where tradeswomen organizations have flourished, one woman organized the first meeting. Sometimes one righteous woman in a position of relative power in a state, federal or local government or a union organization can mean the difference between jobs for tradeswomen and none.

 

  1. Laws (and lawyers) can be our friends. Having the backing of government makes a world of difference when we are trying to change our world (unfortunately, the feds have neglected affirmative action since Jimmy Carter’s time).

 

  1. Mentor each other. Our job is to support each other. Our job is to inspire each other. Sometimes we don’t know the effect we have had on others until many years later.

 

  1. Women have the right to be mediocre. We shouldn’t always have to be the best at everything.

 

  1. Always try to be the best at everything. Otherwise you make women look bad. When we are the only one on the job, we embody the stereotype of all tradeswomen.

 

  1. Just going to work every day and putting on your toolbelt can be a revolutionary act.