Carol Toliver: “My skills never got a chance to launch”

Interviewed by Molly Martin

Photographs by Vicky Hamlin

Tradeswomen organizers like to focus on our success stories. We want to show that women can do it and we want to encourage young women to get into the trades. But we often wonder to each other whether we send women into the hostile environment of construction with too little information about what it’s really like out there. We know that until women reach a critical mass in the industry we still face widespread harassment and discrimination on the job. One of the ways we’ve experienced discrimination is lack of training. Women have been complaining for decades about reaching the end of their apprenticeships and still not having the requisite skills to “turn out” as journeymen in their trades.

This is the story of one woman who tried every way she knew how to make it in construction and never received the on-the-job training she needed to become a top-notch journey level electrician.  Carol Toliver completed the apprenticeship in IBEW Local 595 and worked as a journeyman for years, but she never felt she acquired the skills she needed to become the skilled craftswoman she aspired to be.

Carol grew up in a small town on the Hudson River in Westchester County, NY. She says she got an excellent education there and went on to college at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, TN. At Fisk she participated in a student exchange program in 1978 that took her to Mills College in Oakland for a year. She met her future husband on her way to a rare book exhibit. She loved Oakland weather so much that she returned there for good after completing her last semester at Fisk.

She started working at banks and offices but two different companies she worked for moved out of town and so she ended up in a displaced workers program. That’s how she found out about the electrical apprenticeship. As part of the pre-apprenticeship program, students signed up for an apprenticeship.  She chose electrical, took the entrance exam, and forgot all about it.

Carol was working as a teacher’s aide and planning to go into education when her husband suffered a career-ending injury at his work as a butcher. He fell on a slippery floor while carrying a pallet of chickens from the freezer.

Within days of his accident she learned she had passed the test necessary to get a teaching credential and also had been admitted into the electrical apprenticeship. She realized she had to become the family’s main breadwinner to support her disabled husband and two children.  So she put her plans of going to school on the back burner and opted to accept the apprenticeship, with on-the-job-training and immediate income.

Carol was excited to be an electrician. Her apprenticeship class started on-the-job training even before school classes began. It was 1997.

When she got on the job she was surprised to find an atmosphere of chaos. It seemed like everyone was yelling all the time. She came from a teaching environment where, she says, there is a lot of support and repetition to help you on your journey.  In construction, she quickly learned, it was “jump in and make it happen.”

She was alone. “A lot of electricians have family members in the trade. I knew no one. It was a whole different world.I was a young Black woman, venturing into an environment that was predominately white men who, it seemed, all had some kind of connections,” she said.

The electrical apprenticeship is five years and consists of 8000 hours of classroom training and on-the-job training. There were two other women in Carol’s class of 25. “One dropped out and the other wouldn’t associate with me. I never knew why,” she said.

On the job Carol was often relegated to getting materials the first two years of her apprenticeship. She quickly recognized she wasn’t getting the same training as the men in her class. That’s when she started looking for help.

“I talked to everyone I thought could help–coworkers, apprenticeship directors, union officers,” she said. During her training she met with three different apprenticeship coordinators, trying to get help with her education. They each made her feel like it was her fault.

“My first program coordinator sat down in front of me with his pen and paper, crossed his legs and said, ‘Well young lady what seems to be YOUR problem?’ And I pulled out my piece of paper and pen and said, ‘this is my problem. I’m not getting the skills I need. I want to be a good journeyman. That’s my whole point of being here.’

“He said, ‘Well I don’t see what the problem is. You just have to apply yourself.’

“So I thought, ok I just have to try harder and I continued to ask people for help. I learned in the construction industry there’s a certain mindset that I didn’t have. Everybody just kept making the assumption that I wasn’t present and committed. I was. Maybe I needed a little more hands-on attention. But I think that was fair because most of the guys had worked on mechanical stuff. I had none of that experience as a female.

“When I talked to my second program coordinator I was very emotional. I was so distraught. I wanted to be a success. I wasn’t getting the training. I didn’t know who else to reach out to. Maybe he didn’t know what to do with me or how to handle it. After I expressed my concerns he just said, ‘You’re in the apprenticeship, you’re on a job aren’t you?’ He literally threw me out of his office. I was just devastated. I just said to myself I’m gonna keep trying.

“Then a new program coordinator appeared to be much more progressive. When I spoke to him his response was not as vocal but was essentially the same. He came on the job and talked to the foreman who put me with another journeyman. All we were doing was lifting heavy boards. So then I just realized that the help I thought was there for me was not there.”

Carol said her whole career was one of fear and frustration—fear of being laid off and not being able to support her family, and frustration that she was not learning the trade.

By the third year of the apprenticeship she had reached the “point of no return.” Her husband advised her to quit. “I was too stubborn and had put in too much time to consider that,” she said.

One journeyman she worked with, Marta Schultz, told her about Tradeswomen Inc., a non-profit dedicated to bringing women into the building trades. Marta, besides being an electrician, is a composer, playwright and singer. She wrote “595 The Musical” and skits about women in construction. Her theater group, the Sparkettes, performed at tradeswomen conferences.

“Marta is an experienced union hand and a feminist committed to supporting women in the electrical trade. She made sure that I learned under her watch, unlike many of my union brothers and foremen,” said Carol.

Life on the job didn’t get any easier after Marta, Carol and four other female electricians sued a contractor for discrimination and won.

Carol says the women of Tradeswomen helped her keep her sanity though tough times. She served on the Tradeswomen Inc. board of directors for many years, a place where her positive outlook and organizing skills were welcome.

During that time her kids were leaving home and her marriage foundered, not least because of changed roles and old expectations. “I did a lot of crying, a lot of self-medicating,” she said.

But she decided she had to stick it out, with the ongoing expectation that things would get better. They never did. When Carol turned out of the apprenticeship in 2002 she still did not think of herself as a capable journeyman. “My skills never got a chance to launch,” she said.

Fear of being laid off held her back. “The first couple of times when I told my foreman that I wanted to do different things (related to my craft) that week or the next week, I would find myself laid off.  I was terrified of being laid off and missing a paycheck. We had all this debt. I didn’t see anyone willing to help me and I got to the point where I stopped asking.

“Some of the contractors would give me a basic task I could handle which I appreciated, but I wasn’t moving forward in my experience.  Instead of saying ‘Let her try it,’ they would eventually lay me off.  Even when I was on a job where I became good at something, I would be put on another job and it was back to square one. Then they would send me on to the next contractor who would try to keep me on by giving me menial or not electrical-related tasks.”

After 17 years of working as an electrician, Carol made the decision to quit the trade and move on with her life. I saw her soon after and she was smiling. She finally felt free from the burden of fear and frustration. For a time she worked at computer repair and later she returned to a job in banking. She recently moved into a new senior housing complex in the East Bay.

Carol with a painting of her by Vicky Hamlin

Asked what she would tell women who find they are being denied training, Carol retained her natural optimism. “I would tell them to not be afraid to ask for help and keep asking until you get it.  You can do it, you just have to stand your ground and not let them get away with not training you.  Work hard, and remember your reason for being there.  Look for allies on the job.  There are some good brothers out there and women too. Seek them out early and often in your career. Be determined to succeed and you will.”

PostScript: Financial insecurity, inadequate on-the-job training and hostile work environment are major reasons given for dropping out of apprenticeship. Nonunion programs have a higher cancellation rate than union programs. Women and minorities tend to have higher apprenticeship drop out rates than white men, but all are close to 50 percent. However, apprenticeship completion rates compare favorably with college completion rates of 22 percent. *

 *Apprenticeship Completion and Cancellation in the Building Trades, The Aspen Institute, 2013

 

 

Women Carpenters in 1903

My friend and sister writer, Pam Peirce, is doing deep research for a book about her Indiana family and came across an article in the 1903 Indianapolis News titled “What Hoosier Women are Doing.” It’s a list of occupations with numbers of women for each: “There are thirty-four women dentists in Indiana.” My guess is that it was compiled from the 1900 census. Pam passed it along to me, noting that in that year “Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of Indiana.”

Unfortunately, the clipping is out of focus, but it is still readable. I can see that “Four women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.” I wonder if any of these female crafts workers were allowed to join unions.

“Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of IndianaFour women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.”

We know that women have worked in the trades since before this country was founded. Still, I’m surprised that Hoosier women had such a good representation in the trades in 1903. In contrast, there were about 6,000 washerwomen and 2,000 stenographers.

Pam also turned me on to a book, The Fair Women: The Story of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. The World’s Columbian Exposition included amazing exhibits of the results of women’s activities–in the arts, industry, science, politics and philanthropy. Most of these were housed in the Woman’s Building, which was designed, decorated and administered entirely by women.

womensbldgcover
Handbill for the Women’s Building

In the book there is quite a bit of information about two women who were hired to do sculptures for the outside of the women’s building. One was Enid Yandell, who designed the caryatids, 24 identical female figures that held up the roof garden. It is said that the male workers with whom she shared a studio accepted her “without question.” One of the women managing the project said “Perhaps owing to the fact that almost all the workers were foreigners, and abroad it is not so unusual for women to do industrial work.”

At a party, Enid later had a wonderfully funny discussion about the propriety of women working with the widow of President Grant, who was prejudiced against Enid as soon as she heard that she was a “stonecutter.” Apparently the widow was still angry that her husband had spent too much time with a 15-year-old sculptor (Vinnie Ream Hoxie) who was doing a sculpture of Lincoln. Enid went on to have a career as a sculptor and in 1898 became the first woman to join the National Sculpture Society.

womansbuilding172
The Women’s Building

More sculptural work on the Women’s Building was awarded to 19-year-old Alice Ridout, who lived in San Francisco where she worked in the studio of Rupert Schmid. It took the fair managers months to convince her to come to Chicago to do her work on the sculptures they required, but she did it.

Wonder Women

My first close-up encounter with drag queens took place in a Tenderloin bar when I worked as an electrician for Wonder Woman Electric in the late 1970s.

An all-female collective of electricians, we did mostly residential work. But our regular commercial accounts included some of the multitude of San Francisco gay bars. Each of the bars catered to a particular subculture in the larger gay community. Lesbians had a few bars and coffee houses. But bars for gay men proliferated. There were bars geared toward disco queens, the leather crowd, the sweater gays, uniform wearers, beach bunnies, cross dressers, fairies, bathing beauties–really more than I could even imagine.

One day in the middle of the week I was called to a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Tenderloin. When I finally found a place to park the Wonder Woman van, it was blocks away and I had to lug heavy tool bags through streets lined with junkies and drunks. This was the bad part of town.

I found the address on Turk Street, a nondescript brick front building. The door was locked, but I saw a discreet push-button near it. I pushed it and after a moment a beautiful young man, far more femme than I, greeted me. He wore matching coral pedal pushers, cardigan and mules with little heels. He did not look pleased to see me.

“I’m the electrician,” I said hopefully. “Ok,” he said, looking me over. Then his perfectly lipsticked mouth curled into a little smile. “Come with me. We’ve been waiting for you.”

A small town girl who’d only lived in San Francisco for a year or so, I had just barely come out as a lesbian and had little experience with drag queens, transsexuals or transvestites, especially not the big city kind.

Stepping from the gray Tenderloin street into that little bar was like entering the Harry Potter toy store at Christmas. Lights and colored decorations hung from the low ceiling. Glitter littered the grungy floor.

I was surprised to see a good number of patrons at the bar in the early part of the day. Some sat at the bar, some at tables, but all looked fabulous. Most were men dressed in women’s clothing. Some dressed as over-the-top made-up drag queens, but most looked more like the gals from the office across the street, dressed in low heels and conservative skirts and blouses. I thought I overheard one of them say “fish” which was pretty funny considering I was the butchest thing in the room, wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots.

The bartender looked like a tough sailor just off the boat who’d thrown on a shoulder-length blonde wig and serious makeup—several shades of eye shadow and bright red lips outlined beyond their natural borders. He worked the bar in a tasteful tailored Donna Reed housedress, popped collar and pearls, and ran the joint with cutting sarcasm. I felt like I was encountering the Wizard of Oz and had to keep myself from jumping back like Dorothy did when she and her three cohorts first encountered him. A person could not help being intimidated.

“Here’s what we need,” he directed me. “I don’t want the patrons to use the bathroom without my permission. They get in there, lock the door and stay. And, honey, we all know what they do in there.” I could only speculate. Drugs? Sex? Probably both. Lesbians had been known to use the bathrooms in our bars for such purposes. Where else could a couple go? And if they were quick about it and others didn’t have to wait too long, we were usually forgiving.

The bartender continued, “I want to be able to push a button right here under the bar to unlock the bathroom door when someone wants to use it. Can you set that up?”

This drag queen was also a Control Queen! I looked around the room at the disapproving patrons. I was going to be responsible for limiting their bathroom privileges. I was already the villain and I hadn’t even done anything yet. But I was certainly capable of installing a push button and door lock. It would be all low voltage, so I’d just have to put in a transformer and run low voltage cable. I wouldn’t need to run pipe or install junction boxes. “I can do that,” I said.

I got to work, planning the job. Could I run the low voltage cable under the floor? Yes, said the bartender. There was a full basement. The beautiful young man ushered me down to the basement, a dank, spiderwebby space with a hundred years of grime on every surface. I had to figure out where to drill through the floor to run wires from the bar to the door lock. The job took me up and down the stairs and back to the van to retrieve materials. I focused on my work and I was relieved that the patrons went back to drinking and dishing.

Finally the job was finished. I emerged from the basement coated in its crud, looking more than ever like a construction worker.

“Let’s test it,” I said. I gave a nod to the bartender who pushed the button. The door buzzed open and, with a flourish, a patron entered the bathroom. It worked! Like electricians everywhere, I always got a thrill when I flipped the switch and my masterpiece (no matter how small) performed as intended. But I didn’t usually have an audience.

These patrons understood drama far better than I. The dramatic moment of the day was all mine. It was as if I were making my big entrance, walking down the runway, head held high. They had all been watching closely and when the door opened, they let out a big cheer. I bowed to the applause. The dyke and the drag queens. One big happy family.

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.

Women are Building Our Universe

cheering
A thousand cheering tradeswomen make a lot of noise

Sisterhood is Powerful. That was my take-home from the 14th Women Building conference. When more than a thousand tradeswomen, supporters, advocates and union brothers convened in Los Angeles May Day weekend, it was by far the largest gathering of female construction workers in the history of our movement. Union tradeswomen of all crafts came together from all over the country and the world to share experiences, strategize, laugh and cry together.

There is nothing like being in a room full of a thousand cheering sisters, and it was a new experience for me, a tradeswoman activist of 40 years. We are a diverse group of women, a rainbow of race, class and ethnicity, all part of the sisterhood. I spoke to many individual women—young members of the California Conservation Corps who drove all the way from Fortuna in Northern California, old timers greeting old friends, students who are working to get jobs in the trades. They all said the best thing about this conference was the camaraderie.

CCC
California Conservation Corps members

I’ve participated in the Women Building conferences since their beginning in 2002, and many tradeswomen conferences before that. But this conference was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from past events and I think it portends a new chapter in our Tradeswomen Movement. I think three factors point to a sea change in our movement: first, the sponsorship of the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU); second, the development of mature leadership at local, state and national levels; and third, the advent of social media and its use by the larger community of tradeswomen.

The NABTU sponsorship was the result of work by the National Women’s Committee, especially Patti Devlin, Debra Chaplan, and Caroline Williams. We now have leaders like these on a national level connected to union presidents and internationals as well as the Task Force on Tradeswomen’s Issues, which brings policy expertise to our movement. I was thrilled by the number of women who stood up when asked who had been elected to a leadership position in their unions. And this year the vast majority of women were sent by their unions to the conference.

ButureBuild
Women from the FutureBuild program

A new feature this year was the popular tradeswomen action clinic table. Organizers chose two primary issues that we could weigh in on: restoring federal WANTO funding for tradeswomen organizations, and resisting so-called Right-to-Work legislation in the states. The table was organized by elevator constructor LJ Dolin, Kelly Kupcak from Chicago Women in Trades, and Nicole Aro from the AFL-CIO. It was a great idea and organizers plan to expand it next year with more ties to workshops. The number of participants at the tradeswomen history workshop that I gave with historian Brigid O’Farrell showed us that women are interested in our history and in using what we have learned over the years to forge a new strategy for our movement.

When I got home and started friending folks on Facebook I could see that our community already has been successfully organized by Sisters in the Building Trades’ Melina Harris, who gets kudos for bringing so many women into the electronic media fold. I love that we can kvetch and share our stories instantly on groups like Trade Women Chat. It’s a far cry from our days publishing the quarterly Tradeswomen Magazine with writing, typesetting, layout and bulk mailing tasks taken on by volunteers.

What started as a conference for California tradeswomen (sponsored since 2002 by the California State Building and Construction Trades Council) has now become Women Building the Nation. Next year’s conference will take place in Chicago—the first of these outside of California. We’ve got the dates: April 29-May 1, 2016. It’s an opportunity to expand on existing networks of tradeswomen in the Midwest and to make our movement truly national.

Tradeswomen have long been virtually invisible on the front lines of the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements. We still are the ones who daily confront the most aggressive kind of sexism and racism in our traditionally male jobs. For decades now we have been devising strategies to counter isolation and harassment at work and to increase the numbers of women in the trades. The numbers and enthusiasm at this conference give me hope that we can build a better world for women in the trades. I’m looking forward to the 2025 conference: Women Building the Universe.

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.

 

Tradeswomen at Work

Whenever I see tradeswomen at work, I try to take their pictures. Sometimes I even get a chance to talk to them. There’s a big street project going on at the Glen Park BART station and I’ve made friends with Jackie the laborer who is usually flagging when I cross the street. She is often wearing a t-shirt that reads Fight Like a Girl. There’s a female engineer working on this project too, and I did get a couple of pictures. That’s her conferring with a foreman.

Jack the laborer
Jackie the laborer
Jackie2
Jackie and coworker

Engineer

 

Song: Sister in the Brotherhood

Along with my musical wife, Holly, I wrote a song. It will be included in an upcoming performance piece about women and work by Director Pat Wynne for our Rockin’ Solidarity Labor Chorus.

Sister in the Brotherhood

When I was a girl my mother said to me

When you’re grown what do you want to be

For choices I had only three

Teacher nurse or secretary

 

Typing and shorthand had paid mom’s rent

So I learned secretarial skills

I didn’t really get what that meant

Till I had to pay my bills

 

They made me wear pumps and pantyhose

To apply as a Kelly Girl clerk

I still only made minimum wage

Filing faster only got me more work

 

Chorus

I wanna be in the Brotherhood

Where I can build something and the pay is good

I’ll have a trade and I’ll have it made

 

I answered an ad for cocktail waitress

But they were hiring topless dancers

When the man who was hiring looked at my chest

He said you’ve got the answers

 

No experience necessary

You did not earn a thing

They said you could make 50 bucks a night

From tips stuffed in your g-string

 

I applied for a job in the construction trades

They said can you type, I said yes

I learned never to give that answer again

Cause you just get stuck behind a desk

Chorus

(Spoken)

I was too fat to be a stewardess

Too angry to be a waitress

Too allergic for hairdressing

Too messy for housecleaning

Hated kids too much to be a teacher

Typed too slow to be a secretary

Wasn’t into helping people

As a therapist or a nurse

Not social enough for social work

What could I do!

 

I finally got into the Brotherhood

Where I can build something and the pay is good

I’ve got a trade and I’ve got it made

 

Now in the morning I hop out of bed

Pull on my Carhartts and boots

Just stick that hard hat on my head

Forget the business suits

 

No more pushing papers around

And not creating a thing

Now I can proudly say I built that

When I look at a building

 

I finally got into the Brotherhood

But when I had to pay my dues

I wrote my check to the Sisterhood

And my check was never refused

 

(Spoken)

The International Sisterhood of Electrical Workers

Has a nice ring to it

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.

Women Building the Nation: A Short History of Tradeswomen Conferences

LAconfTradeswomen love a conference, an opportunity to get together and talk shop, share stories and revel in our community: a definite antidote to our typical working lives of isolation and otherness. We started convening even before we had jobs as we tried to figure out how to break into the world of “men’s work.” In the 1970s, tradeswomen organizations took root in communities all over the country, gathering women who wanted in the trades, women who had already muscled their way in, equal rights advocates, and a myriad of supporters.

First National Gatherings

In the San Francisco Bay Area we had met regionally several times before Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) sponsored the first national conference for tradeswomen in 1983. That first national gathering in Oakland rocked our worlds. Tradeswomen activists and advocates across the country met and formed life-long bonds at that conference, coming together in the next decades to promote our cause. Finally, we were not isolated. We were surrounded by hundreds of women just like us whose main issues were getting work in nontraditional jobs, and countering harassment once we got there.

Representatives from tradeswomen groups all over the country organized the second national conference, held in Chicago in 1989, funded by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor (WBDOL). As part of this effort a national organization was born.

We Meet Debra Chaplan

Cut to 1998. TWI was struggling to figure out how to partner with construction trade unions because union construction jobs offer the best pay, working conditions and training. Tradeswomen members, organized by TWI Director Beth Youhn and Amy Reynolds, traveled up to Sacramento to the Cal Labor Fed conference. Amy, a long-time member of Plumbers Local 38, had perfected a one-woman outreach strategy, showing up at all manner of feminist and union gatherings in a hard hat and overalls, looking like Rosie the Riveter. She never failed to attract attention among the suit and tie set. The idea was to get these folks to take note of tradeswomen and the fact that our numbers in the construction trades were so low. Once we got their attention we could propose collaboration.

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Tradeswomen dancing to DJ Joey’s tunes

CA Building and Construction Trades Council

The California Labor Federation includes unions in all industries, and works mostly on legislative and political campaigns. Their annual state legislative conference takes place in the state capital, in conjunction with the State Building and Construction Trades Council (SBCTC). The Labor Fed sponsored a one-day women’s conference in an effort to outreach to female union activists. The tradeswomen came prepared with leaflets and materials to make their case and they did get the attention of one woman who, it turned out, was the best contact they could have made there.TWdance

Northern California Regional Conference

Debra Chaplan had just started working for the SBCTC as director of special programs, and she provided the connection to the building trades unions that TWI had been seeking since its inception. Debra joined with TWI to organize the November 1999 Northern California Regional Tradeswomen Conference, supported by the WBDOL. One hundred fifty tradeswomen and supporters gathered in Oakland to schmooze and strategize for the future. Electrician Marta Schultz performed “595 The Musical.” Our foremothers, Rosie the Riveters who had worked at the Kaiser shipyard in WWII attended and were honored. Herstory was made when organizers, sitting at dinner post-conference, simultaneously removed their bras while leaving shirts and blouses in place.

A resolution developed by that 1999 conference was unanimously adopted at the SBCTC’s 2000 convention, pledging the Council to intensify its efforts to recruit and retain women in all affiliate unions. With the support of its president, Bob Balganorth, the SBCTC agreed to sponsor a conference for California tradeswomen, Women Building California. The first one would be held in Sacramento in 2002 just ahead of the legislative conference that year.

We Launch Women Building California in 2002

For that first conference and for the next 13 years, Debra Chaplan has taken care of the logistics as conference organizer. She produces the invitations, programs, pamphlets, post-conference newsletters and videos, and she takes charge of organizing everything. But the program content is planned entirely by tradeswomen, to reflect our needs. TWI staff fundraises all year to raise scholarships for women in pre-apprenticeship programs, and a workshop track at the conference is devoted to them.

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Carolyn Williams speaking

The first conference was only one day, but it was immediately clear that more time was needed to address all of our pressing issues. Since 2002, we’ve been spreading out a little more every year, adding workshops and plenary on Sunday and a Friday night cocktail hour, then a day for pre-apprenticeship program operators and the Tradeswomen Policy Forum.

If you’ve ever been to a Women Building conference, you know that the vibe there is awesome! All sorts of women from all over the country getting together and learning and teaching, singing and dancing and talking, all over their common bond of working in the trades. It’s a weekend camp for tradeswomen. There’s just nothing like meeting other activists from all over the world face to face.

Tradeswomen Put on a Show

Tradeswomen can put on a show, and we’ve been entertained by many talented vocalists and spoken word artists over the years. Most hilarious were the Sparkettes, a group of IBEW Local 595 sisters, acting out on-the-job encounters with our brothers. One year, circular saws and hammers punctuated a symphony written and performed by tradeswomen and the Women’s Community Orchestra.

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Registration with SBCTC staff and Susie Suafai (R)

All building trades are represented at the conference, and ours is the largest all-craft gathering of tradeswomen in the universe! Electricians have always dominated in number, some years making up as many as a third of attendees. But lately they have been given a run for their money by ironworkers. I must admit to feeling a bit intimidated when I walk into that mob of tough-looking ironworkers on Friday night. But I feel ok as long as I don’t have to arm-wrestle any of them.

Conferences have taken place in Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles. They grew bigger every year, starting with 210 participants and building to nearly 900 in 2014. The advent of social media and the involvement of international unions and their presidents have been factors in the increase in numbers in the last couple of years.

Women Building the Nation

At first we were Women Building California, focused on women in the union building trades. For a couple of years we partnered with the California Professional Firefighters Union to become Women Building and Protecting California. While tradeswomen from all over the U.S. were always welcome, and many came from other states, the conference achieved national billing when the North America’s Building Trades Unions (BCTD) agreed to co-sponsor in 2010. Buy-in was secured by the BCTD Women in the Trades Committee, thanks again to Debra Chaplan, as well as Committee Chairs Patti Devlin and Carolyn Williams. The conference then became Women Building California and the Nation.

The 2015 conference in L.A. may be the last one in California. In 2016, the BCTD plans to take over from the Cal State Building Trades and move Women Building the Nation to another city, yet to be named. A new chapter in the life of our conference is about to begin.

BrickTSee you at Women Building the Nation in Los Angeles May 1-3, 2015!