Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood by Hilary Peach, Anvil Press, 2022
A woman navigating the challenges of the male workplace makes a good story and Hilary Peach does the genre proud in her new book, Thick Skin. A Canadian from BC, Peach writes of working for twenty years as a boilermaker on big projects in Canada and the U.S. She has worked at coal fired power plants, the tar sands in Alberta, pulp mills, gas plants, shipyards—big industrial power generating companies of all kinds, often staying in their company towns.
I enjoy reading about the work people do, especially hard dirty jobs like construction. In this book Peach tells us about the world of boilermakers, a subculture all its own. She describes the often difficult working conditions while she schools the reader about the intricacies and art of welding.
Most stories center on the men she works with, the psychopaths as well as the nice guys.
She encounters sexism and discrimination regularly as might be expected as the only woman among hundreds of men. But Peach always finds humor in the stories and often had me laughing out loud. Tradeswomen who go through the same challenges in our workplaces will delight in her creative comebacks and her various inventive ways of responding to harassment.
“How do we know it’s sexual harassment?” asks an apprentice.
“Just stop talking about your penises. That’s 80 percent of it,” say the women in the break room.
I loved this book. It’s well written and an engaging read with truly general appeal. And, of course, it reminds me of my own experience working construction.
Electricians, too, have a subculture of travelers, boomers, tramps, journeyworkers—those who travel around to different jobs—and my sisters and I used to dream of traveling. We thought it would be the greatest thing—that is until we heard from others who were on the road, mostly because they couldn’t get work in their own union locals. Sandy said she had to wear so many layers of clothes working in the Boston winter that her arms stuck straight out at her sides. Barbara of NYC told about burning refuse in high rises to keep warm and to help the concrete set, risking the hazards of smoke inhalation. Betsy complained of the Texas heat and miles of smelly porty potties.
Maybe we didn’t want to travel after all.
Hilary Peach does it for two decades—driving hundreds of miles, often in the driving rain or snow, to get to a job. Staying in work camps whose last century accommodations have been condemned and then reopened without remodel. Working 12 hour shifts happy for the overtime, working nights, working in cramped quarters in the freezing cold and boiling hot.
As the hard hat sticker says, “If you can’t stand the heat get the fuck out of the boiler.”
Peach does indeed develop a thick skin. A favorite maxim, repeated often:
“You don’t bleed in the shark pool.”
Later, as more women begin to come on to the jobs, they tell her conditions have improved. She writes, “When other women were on the job it made a remarkable difference. One other woman and you are no longer the freak, the anomaly. You have an ally. Three or more, and everything changes. We can no longer be isolated and targeted in the same way…Someone has to organize a second bathroom.”
Thank you Hilary Peach for making women look good out there and for paving the way for more women to enter this industry. A published poet, she’s now working on a novel. As boilermakers say at the end of a job, “See you on the next one.”
Molly Martin is a retired electrician whose latest book, Wonder Woman Electric to the Rescue, is available on Amazon and Kindle.
The envelope delivered to my small flat in San Francisco’s Mission District, shared with three other women, was fat with a far away return address. I knew what it contained even before opening the envelope—a cry for help—and I also knew there would be nothing I could do about it.
I was already involved in the tradeswomen movement when I relocated to San Francisco from Seattle in 1976. As a publicly identified tradeswoman activist, I would get letters from women all over the country complaining of horrific harassment and discrimination in nontraditional jobs. I felt powerless. We didn’t even have an organization, let alone a program to help. What these women needed was a good lawyer.
During the 1970s, we activists formed organizations all over the country. In 1979 we started a nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., to provide support and advocacy for tradeswomen, but we weren’t able to secure funding. With no staff we were run by volunteers—unemployed tradeswomen.
Enter Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a law firm begun in 1974 by feminist lawyers with a focus on defending women’s employment rights. I remember sitting around on the floor in somebody’s living room in the late ‘70s strategizing about how to open up jobs to women that had traditionally belonged to men. That’s when I met Judy Kurtz, a staff attorney at ERA, and we began to collaborate. Later I served on the ERA board of directors for many years.
Looking at the Big Picture
Ours was an anti-poverty strategy. The feminization of poverty was a popular buzzword (still applicable today). Women, especially female heads of households, were becoming poorer and poorer in relation to men. Well-paid union jobs in the construction trades could lift up our gender if we could open them to women. Apprenticeship programs in the construction trades like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, ironwork, and operating engineer only require a high school diploma or a GED to enter. Then the training is free and the apprentice works and earns a wage while she is in school. There are no college loans to repay. We saw these jobs as a path to financial independence for women.
ERA had been part of a national class action lawsuit against the US Department of Labor which resulted in the creation of federal goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades. New regulations took effect in 1978. The goal was to have 6.9 percent of the construction workforce be women on federally funded jobs. Having federal law on our side buoyed us while Jimmy Carter was president, but as soon as Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal affirmative action laws and guidelines were no longer enforced. We had to be creative. We decided to focus on the state level where there was still some commitment to enforcing affirmative action regulations.
Focus on California
Tradeswomen Inc. was fortunate to work with lawyers who were willing not only to take our individual cases, but also to help us strategize about using class action lawsuits to desegregate the workforce. We wanted to make law, to actually create change.
The building trades in California include about 35 apprenticable trades and each trade has a union with different rules, and each union has many locals throughout the state. Not a single apprenticeship program out of hundreds in the state was even close to meeting goals for women’s participation. What could we do to get them to comply?
By 1980 we had some history with all the players. Our partner, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP), was placing women into trades apprenticeships in California, working with the apprenticeship program directors and compliance officers.
The unions were a huge barrier to women but we chose not to take legal action against unions. Our goal was to work with unions, be part of the union movement. Besides, there were so many! So we decided to sue the enforcer.
Suing the State
The State Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) oversees apprenticeship programs and is charged with enforcing affirmative action goals, but they would routinely give a pass to programs that claimed to have made a “good faith effort” to meet the goals. Partnering with Tradeswomen Inc., ERA filed suit against DAS for failure to enforce the goals. The lawsuit resulted in a requirement that the state produce quarterly statistical reports which allowed us to evaluate their progress. We might have had some small impact on the DAS, but we had to take them back to court for contempt five years later. Nothing had really changed.
Then we took on the DAS through the Little Hoover Commission, which investigates state government operations. The public testimony of many tradeswomen got attention, even an article in the New York Times. The investigation ended with DAS getting its funding cut by the Republican administration, which did nothing to help our cause.
Then came a period when DAS made a big turnaround on our issues. It was during the administration of Gray Davis, the Democratic governor elected in 1999. He was only in office for three years when the Republicans mounted a successful recall campaign against him. Davis appointed a friend of tradeswomen to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a Black man from the painters’ union. Suddenly there was some funding to promote women in trades and we partnered with the state agency to sponsor some great programs, like the dedication of the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond where we got to commune with the Rosies, and a trades day for Bay Area high school students. We loved working with the DAS staff, a bunch of smart feminists. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger took over as governor, he brought back into state government all the guys from the previous Republican Wilson administration, and Henry Nunn was axed. It did show us that the state could do the right thing with the right leadership. It also reinforced our impression that Democrats are way different from Republicans.
Part of the Civil Rights Movement
From the very beginning we saw ourselves as part of the larger movement for civil rights and we worked in coalition with other civil rights groups to publicize and also to defend affirmative action programs. In 1977 we were active in a coalition that formed around the Bakke case, which upheld affirmative action in college admission policy. We also partnered with ERA and other civil rights organizations to oppose proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative in 1996 (we lost, and a proposition to overturn 209 in 2020 lost). Some of our partners in the West Coast coalition included Bill McNeill of Employment Law Center; Joe Hogan, retired OFCCP; Tse Ming Tam of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and their founder Henry Der; Eva Paterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; and Superlawyer Brad Seligman. These are luminaries in the social justice sphere and we were so lucky to have their support.
Tradeswomen Monitoring Network
We also collaborated on other projects involving coalition partners like trades unions and the Human Rights Commission. We went to lots of meetings of DAS and its community body, the California Apprenticeship Council to make the labor community aware of their responsibilities. Susie Suafai, who had directed WAP, was hired to monitor the Oakland federal building project—one of the few projects to meet federal affirmative action goals.
This willingness of ERA to use staff time to advocate for us as well as litigate was a huge plus. Litigation was important to our movement, creating the original goals and timetables and affirmative action regulations so crucial for women’s entry into these jobs. But we knew well that litigation alone does not make a movement.
As class action lawsuits became harder to win, and courts were filled with Republican-appointed judges, litigation was a less effective strategy for change. Tradeswomen and ERA continued to look for ways to work together. In the early 2000s we applied together for a grant from the Ford Foundation. ERA received the grant, but Tradeswomen saw none of the money, nor did any program result as far as we could tell. We felt used and the relationship foundered. Another casualty of this fight for funding was ERA’s relationship with the Employment Law Center, a partner in the DAS suit and other related discrimination lawsuits. ELC was directed by Joan Graff, another hero in our battle for affirmative action. This is just one example of how the fight for funding pitted organizations with similar goals against each other.
The ‘80s saw the decline of affirmative action. The ‘90s was a period of working to keep in place the laws and regulations we had fought so hard for, even though they weren’t being enforced. President Clinton appointed Shirley Wilshire as head of OFCCP. She came out of National Women’s Law Center, one of our coalition partners.
We put together a national coalition to pressure the OFCCP to enforce the regulations and increase the percentage of women on federal contracts. We had the support of the White House, but Congress was controlled by Republicans. We planned to file an administrative petition asking for higher goals for women and enforcement of federal regulations, but Wilshire and federal officials argued that we should keep our heads down and hope that Congress didn’t notice and remove the enforcement regulations entirely.
Tradeswomen activists learned about the laws that affected us and we continued to pay attention to the law as it changed through the years. The biggest change for us on a day-to-day level was that sexual harassment was made illegal. This happened not through the passage of a single law, but through a series of court cases with a lot of nudging from the feminist movement. The work of Eleanor Holmes Norton was key.
Today we still rely on ERA and feminist lawyers to push the federal government to meet its affirmative action goals on declared“mega projects” (the only goals still in effect in California). We have entered a period of backlash. While trades have opened up to women technically, we still face discrimination and our ways of fighting back have been restricted.
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.”
In my world of tradeswomen, unions, building trades, apprenticeship and worker safety, the appointments made by governors and presidents matter. The people who actually do the work of government, the staff that we community-based organizations seek to partner with, influence the success of our missions and the strategies we employ a great deal.
In the week after the election, comparing Trump to the one-time California governor, my good friend suggested that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t so bad after all. He was pretty bad, I said.
My friend hadn’t had to work with people in the state government during the Schwarzenegger administration but I did and I know what happened in our state. It wasn’t just that our governor was accused of manhandling women and fathered a child out of wedlock with his maid. I would certainly prefer that men who have so little regard for women not be elected to office. But I’m most concerned with the people they appoint to government positions and the policies they promote and enact.
Before our Democrat governor Gray Davis was overthrown by a Republican cabal financed by Daryl Issa, I had been working with people in the Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) and its parent the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) to help women enter the construction trades through union apprenticeships. We rejoiced when one of our own was appointed to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a black man who had been the apprenticeship director for the painters union. I had met him when we were interviewed together on a public TV program. By that time, Tradeswomen had been fighting with the DAS to pressure them to enforce state affirmative action regulations for decades. We had even filed a lawsuit against the department in 1981, which got us little. But Henry Nunn understood the necessity of overcoming the sexist racist hiring practices in the building trades and he brought on a staff that really cared about these issues. Our nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., built a great working relationship with these folks who took seriously their pledge to make working people’s lives better.
During Davis’ administration, we proposed to the DAS staff that we work together on projects promoting apprenticeship around the state. State regulated union apprenticeships offer the best training and highest paid jobs in construction. Among our joint projects was an apprenticeship fair for high school students that included women and girls that the DAS planned to roll out around the state.
After Governor Davis was recalled, Henry Nunn and his staff lost their jobs. Schwarzenegger, an actor with no government experience, essentially replaced department heads with the previous Republican governor Pete Wilson’s people. Republicans, in the state and nationally, have shown little interest in our issues or in enforcing affirmative action regulations. Under Republican administrations working people and tradeswomen have suffered.
When Jimmy Carter was president, tradeswomen were optimistic that new affirmative action regulations would increase our numbers, and they did. It turns out having the federal government in your corner is a huge advantage. We had reason to hope that women would soon achieve a critical mass in the construction trades.
And then came Reagan. At a recent exhibit of his photos of striking fruit pickers, journalist David Bacon reminded us that 40 percent of union workers voted for Reagan. Talk about voting against your own interests! Reagan had made his reputation as a union buster, so it was no surprise when the first thing he did was start busting unions. He also immediately began to dismantle and defund job training and affirmative action programs.
Tradeswomen saw that women and minorities were being targeted but still we attempted to work with the administration. At one point in the early 1980s, plumber Amy Reynolds even arranged for us to meet with Reagan’s Department of Labor representative, a guy named John Fox, who sat down with us in our tiny office in the Tenderloin. He seemed proud that he had had no prior experience with labor issues. He had been a basketball star (he said) who had worked on Reagan’s election campaign. Fox, and others in Reagan’s Labor Department we later met with in Washington DC, made it clear that their priority was to disempower unions. Because apprenticeship programs are joint projects of unions and industry, they intended to rid the system of union influence. They referred to construction jobs as “men’s work.”
Now, a month after the election of Trump, I suspect my friend is past hoping that he “won’t be so bad.” His appointments are looking far worse than Reagan’s. It’s fair to say that Trump’s appointments violate every ethical standard and it’s easy to predict that women, minorities, working people and all Americans except the 1% will be the losers.
Reporting on the Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago on May Day weekend: Two words: sensational and huge!
My old friend electrician Cynthia Long (IBEW Local 3 NYC) just texted me asking for news about the conference. Although it wasn’t her intention to guilt trip me, I felt bad for not having reported back to tradeswomen friends who couldn’t attend. Here are some highlights:
The climax for me was performing on stage for this gigantic audience of tradeswomen. My wife Holly and I wrote a song called Sister in the Brotherhood, and she accompanied me on the guitar. I was terribly nervous, but we didn’t blow it and that audience of rowdy construction workers liked us! Friends were kind enough to video our performance, and I will eventually figure out how to post the video on this site. (I’m old and tech challenged. It will happen). This week Donna Levitt brought me a copy of Organized Labor, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council’s newspaper. There was our picture on page 4! We feel like rock stars and the glow hasn’t yet worn off.
The conference was hosted by Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). A high point before the conference even began: CWIT’s fabu party at their headquarters and training center. I was delighted to connect up with old activists from way back and also meet young tradeswomen and CWIT trainees, many acting as greeters and volunteers.
Sisterhood T shirt
Nigerian tradeswomen activists and American tradeswomen friends
CWIT staff were fab hosts
The new generation of tradeswomen
Along with historian Brigid O’Farrell and sprinkler fitter Ella Jones, I gave a workshop called “Tradeswomen History: Learning From the Past to Change the Future.” We were able to include testimony from several “tradeswomen matriarchs” who are helping us learn from the past.
As it turned out we had a mini-reunion of some of us old tradeswomen activists from the 1970s and 80s. Carpenter Lisa Diehl, who’d been an organizer of Kansas City Tradeswomen, traveled from her home in West Virginia. She entertained us with stories of feminist actions from the radical 1970s. Ronnie Sandler, carpenter and job training wiz, came from New Hampshire. Dale McCormick, the first female in the country to turn out as a carpenter who went on to win a place in the Maine state legislature and become state treasurer, represented Maine. We reunited with Paula Smith and Lauren Sugerman, two organizers from Chicago we’d worked with to put on the 1989 second national tradeswomen conference there. And some of the early tradeswomen organizers from Chicago were in attendance too, sporting t-shirts and sweatshirts from the 1970s.
Elevator constructor and activist LJ Dolin
Los Angeles IBEW Local 11 sisters in solidarity. Long-time activist Jane Templin (L)
Lauren Sugerman (L) and early CWIT organizers
Old timers L to R: Author Brigid O’Farrell, Sprinklerfitter Ella Jones, Carpenter Ronnie Sandler, Maine DOT advocate Jane Gilbert, carpenter Dale McCormick, electrician Molly Martin
This was the 15th Women Build conference and the 6th we have renamed Women Build Nations, including women from all over North America and other countries. It was the first in this series of conferences to take place outside of California and it brought in hundreds of women from the Midwest and other parts of the U.S. who’d never participated in the past conferences. Fifteen hundred tradeswomen of all crafts, allies and union brothers attended—the biggest tradeswomen conference ever!
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.
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)
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.
Pat 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tradeswomen are part of a larger movement for Civil Rights. We have more power when we coalesce with other people and organizations.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Women have the right to be mediocre. We shouldn’t always have to be the best at everything.
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.
Just going to work every day and putting on your toolbelt can be a revolutionary act.