Walking around my neighborhood watching folks put up holiday lights, I have to stop myself from admonishing them to be careful on those ladders. I recognize this as a fear born of age and experience. As an electrician, and then a home remodeler, I spent many hours working on ladders.
As a new electrician I was fascinated by electrocution. I did some research and found that while electricians do die from electrocution, more often they die due to falls from ladders or being run into by trucks. I got more careful around ladders. Trucks too.
Most electricians spend a good deal of their working careers on ladders. Upgrading the electrical service where the wires come in to the building from the street was a typical job for me as a small contractor. For an overhead service we would mount the electrical panel and conduit on an exterior wall. The last job—connecting the wires at the top of the conduit—we did live from a ladder. Not a metal ladder, which conducts electricity and could electrocute you if the hot wire touched it. I was well aware that a direct shock from a live wire could also throw me off the ladder. I would die not from the shock, but from falling on my head.
Nowadays ladders are made of light materials and there are all kinds of newfangled designs and inventions making them easier to use. Back in the 70s when I worked with Wonder Woman Electric we had an old-fashioned wooden 40-foot extension ladder. The thing felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, but I was young and strong and I could handle it all by myself. You lifted it by pushing one end against a wall then picking up the other end and “walking” the ladder up till it was vertical. Then you carried it upright with a rung on your shoulder, one hand holding a lower rung, and your other hand holding a rung as high as you could reach. Carrying it was relatively easy unless you failed to keep it exactly upright. If it started tilting it was almost impossible to right the thing before it crashed into whatever was in its path, tweaking your back as it fell.
I know people who have died or been severely injured falling off ladders. Our friend Chris died only last year trying to secure a gay flag at his home. Emma became a paraplegic, falling from a tall tripod ladder while picking apples. I worked with Ron who ended up in a wheelchair after falling while tree trimming, and knew Jack who died in a similar accident.
I’ve fallen a few times myself. The first time I remember was while working in a residential garage. I had propped my eight-foot step ladder against the wall. Each step is a foot and I might have been up on the fourth rung, not very high, strapping conduit to the ceiling when the ladder started to slip down the wall. Now most people know—and I knew—that when this happens the correct response is to ride the ladder down the wall. Instead, my sympathetic nervous system overrode my brain and I jumped off, landing on my feet. I fell over and when I tried to get up I couldn’t stand. There was no pain.
The homeowner drove me to St. Luke’s hospital where they told me I had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee, that ACL injury that has plagued female basketball players. I butt-crawled up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and wasn’t able to leave for three months. If that didn’t make me wary of ladders, nothing would. Three months without work and no income. That’ll do it.
One time I was standing on the top of a three-foot ladder, it went out from under me and I landed flat on my back, sustaining not even a scratch. I knew—we all know—not to stand on the top rungs of a ladder, but I hadn’t felt like looking for a taller ladder.
Another time, at the top of a 32-foot extension ladder, I leaned backward slightly and nearly lost my balance. In that second I saw my life flash before my eyes. A fall from the height surely would have killed me. After that I made sure to tie off.
My most recent ladder incident happened in September. I was on the second rung of an eight-foot step ladder trying to pick the last apples on the neighbor’s tree that grows over the fence. I reached my left arm up and back, turning my head with it, and I lost consciousness. It was probably just for a second but I found myself with feet on the ground and arms stretched up, face up against the ladder. My body had just slipped down, my shins scraping against the lower rungs. Other than bloody shins I was ok. Just stunned. Here is something new that can happen on a ladder!
After that event I gained a new respect for the destructive power of ladders. Now I mostly stand below, holding the ladder for others. Our rule here: never get on a ladder without someone else here to hold it.
Advice from an old ladder climber: be careful out there. Those innocent looking ladders are killers.
Who knows why people requested a contracting company named Wonder Woman Electric? Sometimes it was just to see women working as electricians; we were exotic. Sometimes it was because people preferred to hire women to work on their houses. We did exploit the stereotype that women are easier to work with, cleaner and neater (we made a special effort to keep our worksites clean). Sometimes we worked for general contractors who knew our work and hired us as a subcontractor. In that case, the building owner, who might never have hired women, would be shocked to see us on the job. And sometimes the client thought they could pay us less because everyone knows women are worth less than men. Sometimes they thought our labor should be free and they didn’t have to pay us at all.
Wonder Woman Electric found its clients through word of mouth mostly. I joined the collective in 1977 and immediately began to form stereotypes of clients. The working class folks who lived in the Mission and Excelsior neighborhoods of San Francisco, the ones who were scraping up the cash for the remodel or just to feed their kids, always paid their bills on time. You had the feeling that the bill got paid even if dinner was rice and beans for the next month. It was the rich clients who tried to skip out on paying. This amazed me. It didn’t take long to realize that rich people as a class generally had no regard for the value or skills of tradespeople. They believed we were looking for any opportunity to rip them off. Lawyers were some of the worst. One guy ran a business advising rich people how to avoid paying their contractors altogether. How did they get that way? I tried to understand the psychology but finally gave up. Why fight with these people to get paid? Maybe it was best just to avoid them.
But we were listed as a licensed electrical contractor in the San Francisco phone book so we got calls from all over the city. Much of our work was residential and in poorer parts of town, but occasionally a commercial job or a job in a wealthy neighborhood would come our way.
We were delighted when Wonder Woman signed a contract to do the electrical remodel of what would be a new restaurant, the Hayes Street Grill. We knew that the owner of the new restaurant was a locally famous food critic and we looked forward to working for a female business owner. The job included an electrical service upgrade for the building, which meant digging under the sidewalk to run a rigid pipe to the power company’s street box and installing a 200 amp commercial main disconnect.
Our founder, Susanne di Vincenzo, took the lead on the job. She was smart with a degree in physics from Columbia, and she knew how to read the electrical code. She had learned the electrical trade in the slums of New York rerouting electricity for a Puerto Rican squatters’ movement. At that time, if you were female, the above-ground avenue toward learning the electrical trade was closed to you.
The building was a three-story wood-frame Victorian with a steep gabled roof, a residential building that we workers would convert into a restaurant with a commercial kitchen, essentially replacing electrical, plumbing, heating and air movement systems—the guts.
Upgrading the electrical service would be the biggest job, but we would also be pulling new circuits for big kitchen equipment and a new lighting system. Much of our work would involve bending and installing electrical conduit in the unfinished basement, then drilling up through the floor to the kitchen. On jobs like this there are often no plans. The contractor designs the electrical system and then builds it. You get the manufacturer’s technical requirements for each piece of equipment, then calculate the size of the wire and conduit needed.
We started with the service. Jean, Sylvia and I crouched in a three-foot high corner of the dirt crawl space where the service pipe would enter the basement as Susanne gave us a code lesson on figuring the required size of a commercial electrical service. Part of this job would be disconnecting the existing service conductors and temporarily reconnecting the new wires live, a dangerous prospect. But we were glad not to have to do it while standing on a 30-foot ladder, the usual procedure. Electricians are more likely to die from falling off a ladder than from electrocution.
Normally there’s no reason for the electrician to climb on top of the roof and I can’t remember why I had to get up there but at one point I found myself straddling the peak. I was creeping along as carefully as I could, watching the sheet metal workers installing the big air intake and exhaust structures that ran from the kitchen to the roof on the outside of the building. Those guys had safety harnesses but I didn’t. Wonder Woman Electric had no harnesses, nor any safety equipment (I used my own respirator to protect my lungs while working in attics and crawl spaces). Instead, we should have taken job safety more seriously. In the three years I worked with the collective we had two serious fall accidents that could have been prevented if we’d had a safety program.
On the roof I tied a piece of wire around my waist and secured it around the brick chimney thinking it might break my fall. Just then the lineman’s pliers I was carrying slipped out of my tool pouch and bounced with dramatic effect off all the surfaces on the way down to the bottom of the light well forty feet below. It was suddenly easy to imagine losing my grip and tumbling to the ground. But it was a good thing I didn’t fall; that wire could have cut me in half. It was just one of the stupid things I did as an electrician that could have killed me but didn’t.
I think it was here that I began to understand the concept of Machisma, the female version of Machismo. Female construction workers all know that men in the trades think taking risks on the job is somehow connected to their manhood. Risky behavior is what separates the boys from the girls in the minds of the macho guys. The construction companies’ owners probably loved the macho attitude, as they didn’t have to worry about providing personal protective equipment to their workers who thought concern for safety made you a pussy. In some ways the female version was worse—it was self-inflicted. We felt we had to be better than the men in every way, and not be afraid to take risks on the job. The five-woman crew of WWE enforced the macha credo by bucking each other up and sometimes by taunting each other when faced with a frightening task. We also helped each other in risky situations, probably more than the men did. But I was working alone on the roof. My macha attitude melted away as I imagined myself following that hand tool down to the ground. I managed to complete my task and climb down without mishap but I was shaken.
It was our policy to write into our contracts a payment schedule based on work as it was finished. We set the main service and waited for a scheduled payment stipulated in the contract. No money came through. Why, out of all the subcontractors on the job, were we not getting paid? We never met the owner but she had no problem with our work as far as we knew. She did have partners in the enterprise and perhaps they were more than silent partners. Perhaps it was one of them who deigned not to pay us.
Susanne was the “forema’am” charged with dealing with the owners and she had to go through a general contractor. So when the first payment did not materialize after several weeks, Susanne pulled us off the job and cancelled our permit. We had not finished the electrical service, a technical part of the job that requires a contractor’s license and knowledgeable crew. The power company, Pacific Gas and Electric, would not connect the service to their grid unless it had a green tag signifying it had been permitted, inspected and signed off by the City.
Some time later that payment came through, we figured because they learned they had to pay us in order to get the inspection and green tag. In the basement we discovered that the owners had hired an unskilled electrician to finish the interior job, apparently because they thought our bid too costly. He was likely unlicensed and had done the work without a city permit. No inspector would have let this sloppy work pass. It was done in conduit (a requirement for commercial work) but this guy had never learned how to bend pipe. He had run conduit all around the basement using poor workmanship not up to our standards or basic code requirements. We worried that his work would reflect on us, as one permit had been issued to us. We also worried that his poor work could cause a safety hazard in the restaurant. The purpose of the electrical code is to address safety.
How could we register our discontent? We decided to use indelible ink to write on all the conduit “WONDER WOMAN ELECTRIC NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS WORK.” When the owners saw our handiwork they were not happy but they probably figured no one would ever go down into that unfinished basement. We got our final check for the service installation and vowed never to work for these people again.
The restaurant opened in 1979 and today remains a destination for affluent opera goers. No doubt the poor pipe work is still there. I wonder if our remonstrations were ever painted over. And I wonder about the integrity of the interior wiring in the walls. Did that unskilled electrician who didn’t know how to bend pipe know how to do anything else? Did he have a license? Did he pull a permit? Was his work inspected? Did he get paid?
Feminary: a lesbian feminist magazine of passion, politics & hope, was a publishing venture sponsored by the San Francisco Women’s Centers in the 1980s. It was a beautiful collective work of art and I was delighted for this story to appear next to those of revered lesbian writers in Vol 14, 1985.
Many a tradeswoman dreams of dumping the bosses off her back and starting her own business. In the 1970s I was a partner in two small electrical contracting businesses, one–Wonder Woman Electric–all women. While the prospect seems idyllic, running a business is fraught with its own problems. I was glad to have done it and also relieved to go back to taking orders from a foreman. Contracting drove me crazy but I’m proud that we succeeded in training female electricians who made great careers in the trades. Here’s a story published in Tradeswomen Magazine set in that time when everything seemed possible.
This story was published in Tradeswomen Magazine in 1995, but it’s set in the early 80s when encountering homeless people was not yet a daily phenomenon. Young folks won’t remember but there was a time in San Francisco and in other cities when we didn’t have to step over people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks. It was before Reagan, as governor of California, closed down mental health facilities and sent their residents into the streets. Before buying a house in the city became out of the reach of most working people. Before the commutes of construction workers averaged two hours from far-flung communities on the outskirts. Before we got used to it.
Archiving during the pandemic shutdown–it’s a pastime of lots of us old folks. I admit to feeling nostalgic as I box up historic files and read through past Tradeswomen Magazines. The quarterly magazine was published for nearly two decades, the 80s and 90s, and it tells the story of our movement for equity in nontraditional jobs. Of all my writings published in the magazine, the short fiction still resonates best. Here’s a story from the Spring, 1987 issue.
I’ve been going through my collection of Tradeswomen magazines (published by volunteer tradeswomen 1981-1999) and thinking about how much of what we wrote still has relevance today. We started writing and talking about sexual harassment before the term was even in the mainstream lexicon and before we had any legal backing. We were truly foremothers in this fight, and our persistence has paid off in improved industry standards and better working conditions for women in the construction trades. Here’s a story we published in 1983.
I worked for Plant Bros. of San Francisco in the early Seventies. After a probation period, they sent me to a jobsite that had just begun, in the shadow of Telegraph Hill, right by the waterfront. They had to completely overhaul an old grain warehouse and convert it into an upscale office building. The location was great – you could walk at lunch-break over to the wharves, or just sit in a vacant lot and look at the Bay. And the building was interesting, especially as we began to mine our way into it. It was a remnant of the industrial past of San Francisco’s waterfront, a brick five-story warehouse with rugged interiors. We had to earthquake-proof it, tear up flooring, destroy the old freight elevator shaft, and then frame up the new sets of offices. The flooring had been laid when mahogany was cheap, so we were cutting through two tongue-and-groove, inch-thick mahogany floor layers. We burned out blade after blade of our skilsaws and spent weeks with crowbars ripping out and dumpstering the wood. Then re-flooring it with heavy plywood.
This first month was not really carpentry, but I liked it. For one thing, I had an apprentice assigned to me – which was my first time having that responsibility. He was a young Chinese guy who I liked immediately. Eugene knew he was a token of integration for the union – there were less than ten Asian carpenters, and the local was under pressure from all minorities to open up. Eugene and I were attuned in the political culture of San Francisco in the early Seventies and we also both knew how to work with alacrity. Things got even more interesting when they hired a Mexican-American woman named Inez Garcia. She was only the second woman in the union’s history. I had worked with the other, at the General Hospital job. They had assigned her to simply push in all the snap-ties on all the forms, thus earning her the name “snap-tie Mary”. There was a quarrel in the union to get her boss to actually let her learn the trade.
Now Inez was in that position, but it was more promising. The foreman was civil to her and we formed-up a little team, with Eugene and I and Inez and an older Italian guy named Ron. I was given the lead responsibility of cutting a big trapezoidal hole through all five floors for the new open stairway in the center of the building. The foreman and I studied the blueprint, devising a way to place that trapezoid correctly in reference to the walls – then I explained it all and assigned us to different duties. It went ahead really well at first. The challenge of the cutting was apparent and the two young recruits felt that I was teaching them things. We had lively lunch breaks, and I started looking forward to coming in to work.
After the layout was agreed on, we built walls along those lines from the floor to ceiling, tightly wedged so that the weight of the floor above would be supported when we cut the shape out of it. We finished it late one day, and the next morning we were going to start the cut on the second floor. I woke up early with a clutch of anxiety. Something was wrong, I was sure of it. I got to work early and studied the blueprint, stared at the lines, the walls…and suddenly knew what it was. We had built one of the walls on the wrong side of our chalk line; it would be the width of the two-by-six too small! Oh shit, this will look bad. Good that I’d caught it before we cut through above, but… here we had this big twelve-foot-high wall we had to tear down. Luck was with me, as the foreman had to be at another job for the first hour. I told the others what we’d done, and they gravely considered it. I told them we had a slim chance to avoid detection if we all four went at this furiously; removing nails, sledge-hammering the walls over, adding some pieces to fill in, plumbing-and-lining it again…and re-nailing. So that’s what we did, everyone working twice as fast as usual… and just had the wall in place and nailed when the foreman came in. I was already upstairs laying out the cuts. He waved happily and we were home free.
Those cuts were not simple either. Once we had lines snapped and were dead certain of them, we had to Skil saw through the double layers of mahogany. Then we confronted the huge joists, rough 4 x 12 timbers, some of them doubled-up. The foreman got us a chainsaw, and after carefully extending the lines down over the angles of the joists, I started lopping them off, confident from my memory of doing the same thing on the roof at the Unitarian Church. This all went very well, and we progressed upward the remaining four landings, making the same cut each time. Inez and I became good friends, Eugene was becoming the job wit, and I was beginning to enjoy my own leadership. It was interesting to see the way what they wanted to have happen socially was allowing me to be more who I was. Not a leader with commanding certainty, but someone who would let others see my process, my confusions. I could ask for help, and even make things fun.
The new elevator was going to be hydraulic, and it needed a hole as deep as the building was tall – for the piston to recede down into it when the elevator was on the ground floor. So there was a big drilling rig at the building’s edge, boring a four-foot-wide hole…sixty feet deep. At thirty feet they hit some rubble. Pieces of the old waterfront fill. Then there was stone. The auger couldn’t penetrate it and they brought in a specialist.
Mario was a Latino guy who was like a deep-sea diver. He was to be lowered down the hole with a jackhammer so he could break up the layer of stone. We saw him getting ready early the first morning and Inez asked him what the hell he was going to do? It looked strange, the special winch they had for lowering him down, the cradle of canvas straps, the jackhammer hose, his oxygen mask. He explained the whole thing as if it were routine, then says he never feels claustrophobic because he smokes a joint first. I had trouble understanding that part. If I smoked a joint first, the last place in creation I’d want to be, would be thirty feet down a shaft too narrow to move around in. But he assured us it was the only way he could stay calm and focus on the simple task of it. I said, what if you space out and don’t realize you’re not getting enough air? He said he had a regular code of tugs on the rope and that they would frequently tug at him for response. Jesus. We watched him go down…and then felt the vibrations of the hammer. He worked about a half hour and then they pulled him up, covered with dust. He laughed at us, drank some water, and went back down again. We talked about it all day, how…bizarre it was. Mario was either a great hero …or a chump who would be dead tomorrow.
He didn’t die, but he did share his joint with Inez, Gene & me the next morning. Two tokes was enough to make me want to go off wandering along the waterfront to study wave patterns and old fishermen. Gene and Inez were used to smoking more, and able to buoy me up those first few hours. The work we were doing was hilarious for a while. Gene started giggling at the stack of fresh plywood. He said there were flies on it, it was ridiculous somehow. I got a can of spray paint and wrote “ FLY WOOD” on it huge. We were hysterical. “Inez! Go get us a sheet of flywood!” She exploded when she saw it. What fun! But, but, … I was the lead man, I had to fight through this, I had to keep working and, like Mario, find somehow the even keel of bemusement yet purpose. It wasn’t easy and I decided next day to pass on the offered joint. In fact it was fifteen years before I ever tried that again, and then almost fell off a roof. Not all of us are as talented as Mario. At the end of the week we had decided that in truth he was a hero of the first order. He had broken through several feet of hard rock and the auger went back at it. Mario shook hands with a grin, and rode off into the fog.
Our foreman was transferred, and a new guy brought in. At first we liked him all right. He seemed comfortable with the two young minority apprentices, and came over to yak with us often. But after a week, he started being too comfortable…with Inez. He kept her after work one day with a contrived duty, and a few days later switched her to a solo task, which broke up our team. She was given the job of boring all the holes in the brick wall on every floor, that would allow the earthquake bolts to be set in from floor structure to exterior brick. There were hundreds of these to do, and one had to get down on knees or recline positions to hold the impact drill with any authority. It was…the worst job. Each of us had done it for a few hours on other days, and at first we thought, well, someone has to do it, apprentices often get this kind of grunge work. But then it went on the next day, and the next. Inez came up to me after work and said we had to talk. We went for coffee and she told me that Jim had propositioned her a couple of days back…and she had turned him down. He was pissed and told her he would make life miserable for her unless she ‘dated’ him.
So that explained the sentence of hard labor. Inez was furious, but she felt she had no grounds for saying she shouldn’t have to do the job. Inez was really a rugged, working-class woman. The last thing she wanted was to be perceived as whining about physical labor. In fact, she was as strong as me, a formidable person – who also was not a bit afraid of Jim physically. In fact, she was bigger than him. That made it even more disgusting. He was unable to force her or convince her or attract her. The raw power of the paycheck was what he had. When she had complained that he was treating her unfairly with the hole-drilling, he’d simply said, “Okay; then date me or you’re fired!”
I advised her to go to the union in the morning before work. Apprentices are supposed to be instructed, for one thing. And then of course there’s the sexual harassment, a legitimate and potentially scandalous thing for the company. I told her who to see, the most reliable of the business agents, and asked if she wanted me to come with her. She said no, she wanted to be able to carry herself as a stand-up member of the local, not dependent on anyone.
Next day she was gone. I called her that night and she said the union rep had taken her side with integrity and had called the company. They agreed to transfer her to another jobsite and make sure she was treated fairly if there was no threat of a lawsuit. Inez had agreed to this, but we both felt depressed. I felt I had to apologize for the whole backward mob of jerks that populate construction work. It was as if she had been a lantern in a cave, revealing our stupid scuttling ways. Ugh. She told me to drop that rhetorical bullshit, that the only thing that depressed her about it was that she would miss all of us. It was just one jerk, really… but one spoiled everything.
Jim was still foreman on that job for another two weeks – while we frosted him. Then, out of the blue, the union announced that contract negotiations had broken down and there would be a city-wide strike. When that all blew over, I found another job. Plant Bros. was tainted for me.
Eric Johnson is a printer who writes stories about his work as a carpenter in San Francisco.
At ten o’clock they called us all down from the scaffolds where we were finishing the tops of the columns of the Pantheon. All was ready for the next stage–arches and the first valance of the great dome. To duplicate in concrete the shapes of the original Maybeck design, a crew of plasterers & carpenters had worked for months on the huge forms.
We gathered in the covered building that is now the Exploratorium, to help get the first form out into the yard where the crane could attach & lift it. It weighed many tons, in an awkward, trapezoidal shape. No combination of forklifts or dollies was thought possible to make a safe carry, so…they took us back to a time before tools. Fifty of us ranged evenly around the form, waiting for commands–dusty men in ragged white overalls, hard-hatted in the old style resembling World War One helmets. Putting on gloves, testing the grip edge, preparing as if it were a track & field event. The initial swagger of the field carpenters damping down to admiration for what the ‘inside’ crew has built.
Howard, the Foreman, got our attention. On my say-so, you’ll all lift at once. If we get it up to our waists, then let’s set it back down slowly. This is just to get the feel of it. Then he said LIFT–everyone grunted and strained…and nothing happened. It felt as if you could never budge it. Howard said to keep an even strain, not a jerk, and after a few seconds we felt it slowly rising. An eerie thing. It seemed to take all one’s strength, everyone’s, to break the inertia. But once it began to rise, it felt light enough to throw. Howard asked us how we were doing. Everyone said fine. Said let’s go! And he thought and then agreed: All right! So… you have to walk at the same pace…take small steps.
And then, another sensation of the Many Tons. At first we could not move. I tried to step but the Form was staying put. I had to step back again, then strain against it as if shoving an elephant into her stall. But then there was that Shift as the current of our strain woke the monster…and we each managed to take a first step, in extreme slow motion. Now the Form seemed to wantto move. It accelerated a little, and one felt as if one had no choice now about the speed. Howard yelled out to keep an even strain.Men in front were pulling, and on the sides they were walking in an angled fashion…and it seemed all at once like the most exhilarating thing that ever happened to you! Like being gods, or dreamers in unison! A nervy camaraderie pulsed around the rim in our grip. For me, a moment of reverie: this is something to always remember. What people can do in union! The Shakers, the Egyptians, harvests….
I think everyone was euphoric like that for a bit, and our momentum had increased until it was that of a serious hiker. Howard warned us that the turn coming up would mean the pivoting side should slow down. We all tried to gauge what that would mean for our own effort…but there was no way to command it, and we were having that same problem of inertia…we could not make the thing slow down orturn. It was going too far in the original track; we could see that the radius of the turn because of the great size of the form was already being exceeded.
I was straining with all my heart against the direction with no effect. Then there were some frightened yells as the men closer to the doorway began to think they might be crushed. Howard ran along the left side urging us to push harder. Someone on the far side had fallen as the speed changed, and then there was a near panic as that edge began to dip down…until some slid over to cover.
At last, the turn achieved its own momentum. The edge farthest from the pivoting zone was really picking up speed. The pivoters were almost standing still and the outer edge was moving as fast as a man could run…and run they did, one leaping clear as the form’s edge grazed the door walls, and all of us had a rush of dread as if seeing the iceberg scrape alongside our Titanic. The magical communal energy had ‘gone too far’; some of us were about to get mangled. Our fate was sealed as a team…abandoning the Form meant a lurching crash.The last ones holding on would die….I already felt the test coming over me; I was nearing the end of my stamina at this intensity of strain. It felt like my muscles would pop or rip and they were screaming at me to stop.
There was a staccato din of shouts to HOLDON! And…we did in fact hold on…the turn finally slowed itself, we passed out into daylight, and Howard ordered us to come to a full stop. Helpers came to arrange the lagging under the form, and we stood speechless, grinning across at each other in the exhilaration and relief. The barehanded, natural childbirth mass movement…had made it out the gate. We set it down and floated up to the scaffolds of the Pantheon…and back to work.
Eric Johnson, the author of this story, is a letterpress printer and founder of Iota Press and also North Bay Letterpress Arts in Sebastopol now with a dozen active printers. We met because I was researching the life of his mother, Miriam Dinkin Johnson, a daughter of one of the iconic Communist chicken farmer families of Petaluma. I was delighted to learn that Eric is a carpenter and storyteller too.
In an effort to record the history of the Tradeswomen Movement and the stories of the first women to enter the construction trades, I’ve been interviewing some of my tradeswoman sisters. Here is the first of many to come. As a sister electrician, I had heard of Betsy Brown but I didn’t get to know her until she had founded the first (and only) union contracting business in San Francisco (and probably the state of California) owned and run by female electricians.
Electrician Betsy Brown started her apprenticeship in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest where indoor plumbing and women’s toilets with locks were set up early on the construction site. So she was shocked to walk onto a nuclear power plant job in Texas and see (and smell) a quarter-mile-long line of port-a-potties. Betsy was, in the electrician’s lingo, a traveler most of her career because she had trouble finding work.
Betsy was born in 1951 and raised in San Francisco by a family of “Jewish Communist atheists.” It was a good life full of music and friends, she said. She was brought up on anti-war marches and union picket lines and she learned to be an organizer at a young age. She lived with her mother and three siblings for four years at her grandfather’s farm in Southern California while her father went underground during the McCarthy era of Communist witch-hunts. Her longshoreman father, Archie Brown, and two uncles had fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Betsy got involved in politics early on. She said she got her organizing skills from her mother, Hon, a legal secretary. “Today I would call it project management,” she said. At 14 she was part of the Students Education and Action League, a multi-school anti-war organization. They put out a mimeographed newspaper. “We had the good fortune of the Board of Education deciding to ban the newspaper,” she said, which of course increased sales. She went to the police to get a permit for a march and they pulled out a file with her name on it. “Are you Elizabeth Brown?” Yes. “Are you Archie Brown’s daughter?” Yes. She was surprised to find that the cops already had a file on her at age14. She got the permit.
She was there in San Francisco during the summer of love in 1967 and lived for a time in the Haight-Ashbury. Then, at 19, she put her dog and guitar in her car and drove north. She ended up in Bellingham, Washington and spent the next period of her life in the Pacific Northwest.
Betsy was living on a little farm near Hood River, Oregon with her boyfriend, their two kids and two other adults when the collective decided they needed to get real jobs to make some money. She saw an ad for the electrical apprenticeship and thought “Why not?” so she drove the hour west to Portland to take the test with several hundred other applicants. She couldn’t believe it when she was granted an interview where they asked dumb questions like, “Do you really think you can drive to Portland everyday?” Later she realized she had been chosen to fail. The all-white all-male unions were under pressure to diversify. Her testers thought no five-foot tall woman could possibly succeed at construction work. She proved them wrong.
The apprenticeship guys assured her that it would be months before she was called to work so she thought she would have time to wean her month-old son. Instead she was called up within two months to work on the new I-205 bridge across the Columbia River. She left her kids with the collective and drove to Portland. The first day on the job her shirt was soaked through with milk. Her journeyman noticed and commented, “Baby at home?” That was it. “The IBEW weaned my baby and they didn’t even know it,” she said.
To work on that bridge, you had to walk a plank about 16 inches wide out to where work was going on 60 feet above the river. The first day every eye on the job was on her as she walked the plank. She was terrified of heights, but would never admit it to anyone on the job. Her journeyman told her, “Don’t look around. Just keep walking.” Eventually the others all went back to their work. During its construction, three men died on that bridge.
The main job for electricians on the bridge crew was to keep the pumps in the cofferdams running. One day the pump quit and Betsy’s journeyman didn’t show up to work. So, with all eyes on her, the first-year apprentice had to take the skiff out on the river by herself, tie it up to the cofferdam and figure out how to get the pump started. Once she did that, she began to build a reputation as a good mechanic. Her journeyman had instructed her, “You just have to look like you know what you’re doing.” That was good advice, she said.
Quick thinking during another near disaster also sealed her reputation as one who stays calm under pressure. Out on the icy river in the skiff one day the engine died and she and the journeyman were getting sucked into the river out amidst the barges and platforms with the possibility of capsizing.Betsy was able to grab a rope and tie up the boat before it got far.
Later in her apprenticeship Betsy worked on a paper plant in Newport Oregon, a fun job where she got to bend lots of rigid conduit. Her apprenticeship consisted entirely of industrial work. She had never done commercial or residential work when a downturn hit and she got laid off. She had finished the required school hours, but not work hours and so was not able to turn out (graduate) as a journeyman. So she decided to try traveling. Except there was a catch 22. Apprentices are not allowed to travel (that’s what the term journeyman means). But there was no way to get the required work hours in her Portland local. Betsy convinced the apprenticeship to give her a travel letter by telling them the union had allowed it, then convinced the union that the apprenticeship had allowed it.
Someone told her there was work in Phoenix, so she went there. In Phoenix they said work was stopped because of rain. Betsy countered that in Portland if you didn’t work when it rained, you would never work at all. Then they said she would have to wait for the next apprenticeship class to start, which could be years away. They told her there was work on a nuclear power plant in Texas near Houston, so she went there. She arrived alone with no connections and no place to stay but the IBEW sister/brotherhood there took her in and made her part of their family.
The job was gigantic with a thousand electricians and a wide variety of other trades. That’s where she encountered the long line of smelly port-a-potties. The job sucked. There wasn’t enough work. Boredom stupefied. “You’d be excited to get to run 20 feet of pipe, then you’d have to wait half a day for the inspector,” she said. Her electrician husband, Jim, brought the kids down and the family lived in a “road trash trailer park, the only integrated housing in the town of Bay City.” She worked there November to August until she just couldn’t take it anymore. Heat, humidity, boredom and port-a-potties pushed her over the edge.
After she left Texas, Betsy joined IBEW Local 551 in Santa Rosa, whose territory includes much of Northern California. She found work at The Geysers where she finally turned out as a “journeyman inside wireman.” She ran for office and served on the executive board of the local, the first woman to do so. When she found out the dispatcher was discriminating against her and others she tried to organize a lawsuit but no one wanted to join. So she took her tools on the road again, signing the books at several San Francisco Bay Area locals.
In San Francisco she got involved with the Two Gate Committee. Contractors had developed a system where union workers used one gate on the job and nonunion workers used another. Unions were prohibited from protesting with the traditional picket line. So workers from multiple trades formed an a-hoc committee to protest. The chant was “One gate two gates three gates four. A scab’s a scab through any door.” They organized a huge demonstration to protest the ABC, the nonunion contractors association, when their convention came to town. It was a huge gathering that lasted three days. A veteran of many demonstrations, Betsy observed, “It was so interesting to see how the police treated construction workers as opposed to war protesters. Police feel more brotherhood with construction workers.” The contractors sued two individuals in the committee and the Two Gate Committee then had to focus on their defense. Charges were eventually dropped and the committee disbanded.
Betsy next got a temporary job with the city of San Francisco as a traffic signal electrician where she worked for about a year. She said it was a great job, but she didn’t understand how much antipathy there was until she looked back on the experience. “(I used) whatever armor we put on to work with those assholes…because if you noticed it at every turn you’d go crazy,” she said.
On a jobsite, handing out two gate leaflets she ran into a woman from her old local in Portland, Jay Mullins, and they hatched a plan to start a contracting business, Thunder Electric. Betsy was still having trouble getting work and felt she either had to quit working out of the halls or go to work for herself. They started small. “We were two girls and a truck. We worked out of Jay’s garage.”
The IBEW business agent told them that as soon as they got big enough to hire a hand, they could be organized into the union. In the meantime, they worked on mostly residential remodel projects in San Francisco. In a serendipitous encounter at a bid meeting another experienced contractor approached Betsy wanting to partner with a minority contractor. It was a $250,000 job at the airport. “I said I don’t think I can bond this job. So he wrote me a check for $23,000 for that bid and after that he helped us get bonded. The hardest part of contracting is finding someone to float your bond. Once you have one bond, then you can get the next bond,” she said.
Jay and Betsy agreed they would take no jobs relating to incarceration or weapons. They worked on quite a few public works projects. As a San Francisco city electrical inspector I inspected at least one of their jobs—the upgrade of the North Beach sewage treatment plant. Thunder Electric had no trouble attracting and keeping experienced hands. “We were a good company to work for,” she told me.
Through luck and organizing ability they expanded their business until they were keeping 30 San Francisco IBEW Local 6 electricians working. Betsy found she liked working as an electrician far better than contracting, but she is most proud of being able to employ so many hands at union wages. She sold out her share of the business to Jay and another partner and some years later Jay dissolved the business. It remains the only Local 6 contracting business owned and run by women who started out as electricians.
Back in Portland Jay also found she had trouble getting work. “They don’t want you because you’re a woman and they don’t want you because you’re old,” she said.
Betsy really always wanted to be a farmer, and she gave it a go a couple of times. She tried apple farming in Eastern Washington but didn’t have adequate capitalization. After selling out of the contracting business she and Jim bought a small farm in Round Valley, California on the Indian reservation planning a peaceful farming life. Then her 19-year-old son got cancer and she had to find a job to support him (It’s a good story; he survived). She worked as a project manager for a contractor, then for an estimator.
Then she saw an ad for a job project managing a community center and housing project on the Round Valley Indian reservation. At the interview she asked where her desk would be. When they showed her she said, “Can you put a window right there?” They said sure and she took the job. She had learned from experience that you have to get everything you want right when you’re getting hired—salary, extra vacation days, benefits. “When they want you, you can get it, but after you’re hired you can’t,” she said. She took over the project management and was able to train a crew of local Native American tribal members to continue it. Now she is organizing a co-op of marijuana growers. Those organizing skills she learned as an activist and a contractor have come in handy in “retirement.”