Singing the Old Wobbly Songs

  roadshow.small_On November 7, the Labor Chorus appeared with the Joe Hill Roadshow, a varying collection of musicians and spoken word artists traveling the country to remind us about Joe Hill and our labor history. It was our pleasure to back up the amazing performers David Rovics, Chris Chandler and George Mann. If the Joe Hill Roadshow is coming to your area, go see it. The show is now touring the West.

On the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor hero and songwriter Joe Hill, I’ve been reminiscing about our little chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in Pullman, Washington in the early 1970s. I still have my dues book in a box somewhere. We all had Little Red Songbooks and I remember we used to meet in a basement (must have been Koinonia House, where many radical gatherings took place) and sing the Wobbly songs. Most of us were students at Washington State University along with a few faculty members.

The IWW was headquartered in Chicago then (it has moved back to Chicago from San Francisco) and we would send to the international office for union materials, which seemed to have been stored there since the 1920s. My dues book had a space for the year that read 192_. You had to fill in which industry you worked in. That confused me until another member filled in Education. That’s when I understood that Education is an industry. Duh! There were wonderful pen and ink posters that were shipped in cardboard tubes too.Little_red_songbook

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the IWW in 2005, I went to a celebration and conference at UC Santa Cruz. I went because I knew Archie Green would be there. Archie was a labor historian and folklorist who was singlehandedly responsible for the American Folklife Preservation Act. I had worked with both of Archie’s sons who were electricians in my IBEW local. One was an electrical inspector with me, but I could never get him to introduce me to Archie. I had to go to this public event to meet him.

I think it was Labor Day, 2007, when Archie was 90, that was declared Archie Green Day in SF. The Labor Archives and Research Center hosted a celebration at the ILWU local 34 hall. Archie stood onstage and spoke about his new book, which had just been published, The Big Red Songbook. He told us that this guy whom his parents had known through the Workman’s Circle in NYC had started the project of compiling all the Wobbly songs and their history. This guy, John Neuhaus, was dying of cancer in 1958 and when Archie went to visit him in the hospital he made Archie promise to finish the project. It only took him 49 years. Of course I have an autographed copy.

Archie became my mentor. He promised he would fund a book project about the history of the tradeswomen movement if I could just get the goddamned manuscript written. I submitted an outline and we argued about the focus. I interviewed Archie and learned that his Jewish family had emigrated from Ukraine and his father had been in the 1905 revolution. Archie was a fierce mentor. Two weeks before he died he was kicking my butt about the book. I said by the time I get the manuscript finished, books will be extinct (it’s still unfinished)MMchorus

Heres’ the thing: I’m still singing the old Wobbly songs! A couple of years ago I joined the Rockin’ Solidarity Labor Heritage Chorus (the name might even be longer than that. I can never remember). It’s part of a subculture of labor choruses, still here but dwindling. I regret that I didn’t get involved sooner.

The guy who was the inspiration for that little subculture in the Bay Area was Jon Fromer, a singer/songwriter who had worked on a TV show called We Do The Work and organized the Bolshevik Café, a kind of Commie variety show. The twice-yearly Bolshevik Café had been the project of the Billie Holiday sect of the CPUSA. Commies who knew how to put on a show! I got there as often as I could. One time I spotted Angela Davis in the audience. Jon also founded the annual Western Workers Cultural Heritage Festival in 1987. Volunteers have taken on the organizing, but the old commies are aging and 2016 will be the last year. It’s held on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at the Plumbers’ Hall in Burlingame. Jon died a couple of years ago. I hadn’t gone to the Heritage Fest until I joined the chorus and we performed there, though I knew about it. Like much of the remnants of the Left, it’s a rather insular group of old timers with a tiny sprinkling of younger folks.

The work is carried on by people like my chorus director, Patricia Wynne, who founded our chorus in 1999. Although, she’s no spring chicken either. Most of the chorus members are old people—mostly labor activists–like me. We come out to sing at picket lines and demonstrations along with Occupella, a little group that formed during Occupy, which includes the daughter of Malvina Reynolds who is now 80 years old herself, and the Brass Liberation Orchestra, a lefty marching band.

cropped-laborchorusheader1Pat has of late taken to writing what I call operas for lack of a better term. They are stories told with song and spoken words. My favorite production was taken from The Warmth of Others Suns. We sang with Vukani Mawethu, a local group that sings South African choral music. For me this was our most inspirational “opera” because these old black people—members of both choral groups–got up on stage and told their own personal stories of migrating from the South. Two of them, Alex and Harriet Bagwell, were old CP members who I first heard sing at the Bolshevik Café. Very accomplished musicians, they will be singing with our chorus again for the next opera, about working women. I’ve written a song for it about the crappy jobs I did before becoming an electrician (called Sister in the Brotherhood) and Pat put it in the program.

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Musical sisters Pnina Tobin, Molly Martin, Ruth Mahaney

I can carry a tune, but I’ve got a lot to learn about being a singer. It turns out I’m a belter, like Ethel Merman. I always knew I had a loud voice but who knew it translated to singing? I call myself a failed alto because, although my goal was to learn to sing a part, my old brain never got good enough at it and I finally joined the soprano section so I can sing the melody. Sometimes I have to strain to reach the high notes.

Some of the old songs are kind of hokey and the music rather boring, but some—especially the old Joe Hill rewrites of old Christian hymns—I just love to sing. Some I remember from those basement sing-ins in Pullman, like The Preacher and the Slave. “You will eat by and by in that glorious land above the sky.” I especially love the Wobbly Doxology. “Praise boss whose bloody wars we fight. Praise him, fat leech and parasite!” Instead of Amen at the end of the song, we sing “Aww Hell!” But I never learned Rebel Girl, about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, probably because we couldn’t stomach the condescending attitude toward women. “She’s a precious pearl.” Blech! My chorus sings it, but with some changed lyrics to make us feminists happy.

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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.

 

The Birth of Our Movement: Tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area

The tradeswomen movement might be the most unsung subset of the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Like the feminist movement, it did seem to erupt suddenly, simultaneously, across the country and the world. All at once in the mid-1970s women began demanding access to blue collar jobs that had been the exclusive domain of men, like construction, utility maintenance, driving, dock work, policing and firefighting.

But the movement was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Women had been working for decades toward equality under law. Women had been included—however disingenuously—in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then Title IX, the 1972 law requiring gender equity in education including sports programs. Young feminists, studying the statistics, were painfully aware that on average women working full-time made only 59 cents for every dollar made by men (in 2011 the proportion had risen to 77 cents). Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and efforts by black men to enter the white world of union construction, women began to organize toward employment equity.

In the 1970s and 80s organizations advocating for women’s access to these jobs sprang up all over the U.S.: Chicago Women in Trades, TOP-Win in Philadelphia, Northern New England Tradeswomen, Hard-Hatted Women in Cleveland, Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York, Women in Trades in Seattle.

In the San Francisco BNEWay Area activists first formed Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) as a project of Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE), a nonprofit organization for working women which included housewives, unemployed, retired, and women receiving welfare.

Early tactics included demonstrations and marches and efforts to enter union apprenticeships in the construction trades. The training programs, administered by joint committees made up of employers and unions, are comprehensive and free. An apprentice works full-time while completing training, usually at night during the program, usually four years. Hourly pay increases until you “turn out” as a journeyman in your trade. The apprenticeship system, especially in desirable high-paid trades like electrician, plumber, operating engineer, sheet metal and ironworker, had been closed to all but white men, primarily relatives of men already in the trade. The federal government had put in place agencies to enforce the new civil rights laws and women began to organize to tear down that wall.

Carpentry was a popular choice among women. The idea of working with wood, which it turns out construction carpenters don’t do much of—they mostly build forms for concrete–seemed romantic. The carpenters’ union was and still is the largest construction union with the biggest apprenticeship program and the most jobs. In the 1970s, it was one of the easiest apprenticeships to get into. Other crafts required applicants to take aptitude tests, submit to interviews and wait for months for a score but the carpenters used the “list” method, just creating a list of applicants, first come first served.

In 1975, with support from a sister nonprofit, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) whose purpose was to place women in these apprenticeships, women learned that getting into the carpenters’ apprenticeship was just a matter of standing in line at the union office and signing up. The night before the apprenticeship opened, women formed a line outside the union door so there would be no question about who was first. Sleeping for one night on a concrete sidewalk seemed small payment for the opportunity to enter a training program which would also assist in placing trainees in construction jobs.

When the union’s doors opened the next morning the women who had waited in line all night found that their names did not appear first on the apprenticeship list. They also learned that carpentry was a “hunting license trade,” meaning that the apprentice must first find a contractor willing to hire him before he can be indentured into the apprenticeship. Hiring and, therefore, the apprenticeship was controlled by the contractor/employers who preferred to choose known workers rather than request new apprentices sight unseen from the union’s list. The women did travel to various job sites in the Bay Area seeking work, but no contractor would hire them. They decided to look for a lawyer.

Sue the Bastards

Filing a lawsuit was a decision not taken lightly. It almost certainly meant that the filer would become a martyr to the cause and would be blacklisted from future work. It could also mean months and years of shepherding a case through the system. And, as much as it was apparent that the unions were acting as the enemy of women, the women did not want to make the unions their enemy. The unions were the only reason trades jobs paid decent wages with decent working conditions.

Litigation cannot be the sole foundation of a mass movement, but litigation in the 1970s when class action lawsuits proliferated and very often resulted in wins, became an important part of activists’ strategy for change. San Francisco Bay Area tradeswomen activists were lucky to have advocate lawyers at Equal Rights Advocates, a law firm devoted to defending working women, and the Employment Law Center. Across the country, most women fighting employment discrimination were out of luck. No lawyer would take their cases.

Lawsuits filed by individuals rarely resulted in changes to laws or regulations. Women were pressured to settle for cash and to agree not to disclose the settlement. The lawsuit that had won affirmative action goals and timetables for women in the construction trades was filed by a coalition of feminist advocates against the U.S. Department of Labor in 1976.

BCAW by JEB
(c)2015 JEB (Joan E. Biren)

The case that resulted from the 1975 attempt by women to join Carpenters Local 22, Eldredge vs. Carpenters Trust, kicked around in the courts for 21 years and was finally decided in favor of the women. Judge Betty Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the union to reserve 20 percent of its job referrals for women. In her opinion, an obviously exasperated Fletcher wrote, “The bottom line is that women historically have been systematically excluded from carpentry work and for more than two decades have sought relief through the courts while the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, the craft’s gatekeeping organization, has waged a relentless battle to preserve the status quo.” But the carpenters union ultimately was the real winner. For a time, the union complied. It found plenty of women in the San Francisco Bay Area anxious to enter the trade, putting the lie to its past complaints that women weren’t interested in construction work. Then, when the 20 percent apprenticeship goal was met, the union petitioned the court to end the consent decree. The settlement agreement failed to require follow up and when the judge’s decree ended so did the hiring of women.

The women’s lawyer, Alberta Blumin of Berkeley, essentially worked for free, but there is no accounting of the legal costs to the JATC for its “decades’-long legal recalcitrance and foot dragging” (Fletcher’s words).

Goals and Timetables

In 1978, when the new federal affirmative action rules and regulations went into effect, tradeswomen and women who aimed for careers in construction celebrated. The goal for women to be hired on federally funded jobs was 6.9 percent, increasing to 9 percent over five years. Apprenticeship programs were required to indenture 23 percent women (the number was one half the percentage of women in the general workforce—46 percent). If the unions and employers actually met the goals and the federal and state governments actually enforced them, it would only take a few years for women to achieve parity in the construction trades.

The new comprehensive federal guidelines that resulted from the Department of Labor lawsuit spelled out more than just numerical goals. Titled Executive Order 11246 and upgraded under President Jimmy Carter, the law acknowledged that a critical mass of women would be needed to counter the isolation and harassment women were experiencing in nontraditional jobs. The regulations pointed out working conditions and safety as paramount.

That year, 1978, union construction apprenticeships across the US were forced to induct their first women, but most women were still alone in apprenticeship classes with men. Many dropped out. In San Francisco’s IBEW Local 6, four women began the apprenticeship. One, Pat Snow, was able to retire with a full pension after 25 years as an “inside wireman.”

The large hope was not fulfilled. The 6.9 percent goal was never met except for a few isolated jobs, and never increased. Nor was the apprenticeship goal met, except in the Seattle IBEW Local 46 program, which for seven years was headed by a female electrician, Nancy Mason.

Anti-poverty strategy

A good percentage of women who entered the construction trades in the 1970s were college-educated and middle class. Economics was a driving factor. Unemployment was high and women had difficulty finding well-paid jobs in more traditional occupational sectors. But many women didn’t want to work as teachers, nurses or secretaries (the main historical choices). The feminist movement had posed the question: Why can’t I do this? Suddenly everything seemed possible. Women who didn’t want to dress in skirts and pantyhose, whose dream was other than sitting at a typewriter all day, who weren’t interested in teaching kids, found a welcome alternative in construction work. You could get up in the morning, throw on the same clothes you’d worn the day before, put a hard hat on uncombed hair and go to work. You could drive around town and point proudly to buildings you had built. In union construction work men and women make the same wages and the contract provides for decent working conditions and benefits.

Among the many reasons to choose construction work was free apprenticeship training and no requirement for college education. Activists saw the breaking of resistance to women in trades as a path out of poverty for women. Here was a way to counter the “feminization of poverty,” a shocking trend especially as more women in the U.S. became single heads of households. Such a demographic shift could end poverty for women and children all over the country.

Tradeswomen Inc.

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 1.32.07 PMIn 1979, Tradeswomen Inc., a 501c-3 nonprofit, was organized by a group of advocates including Madeline Mixer, director of District IX of the Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labor; and Susie Suafai, director of WAP. The goal was to access money to expand the already successful WAP project that was placing women in Bay Area union apprenticeship programs. For a short time, under President Jimmy Carter, construction jobs opened up to women. But after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 everything changed. The Reagan administration immediately dismantled and defunded whatever affirmative action programs it could, and stopped enforcing regulations already on the books.

Women, however, continued to fight to enter construction and nontraditional jobs.

To be continued.