Preserving Solidarity Forever: Women in the Trades

Address to the University of Washington Labor Archives gathering May 12, 2018

Tradeswomen sisters, friends and advocates! Today we celebrate the victory of our movement to integrate the construction trades. Women have achieved parity. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are things of the past.

Just kidding.

The truth is that after nearly a half century of organizing, our movement has failed to achieve parity or even a critical mass of women in the construction trades. But we have made some amazing gains. I want to talk about that and I want to pose a question to you all.

4 activists
Jo Scherer, Molly Martin, Connie Ashbrook, Nettie Doakes. Jo and Nettie are longtime WWIT activists

Let me give a little background and then we’ll hear from the distinguished activists on our panel and in the audience. Thanks to Conor Casey and the UW Labor Archives we have a panel of veteran tradeswomen foremothers. These crones are woke!

Here’s my backstory. I grew up in Yakima, went to college at Washington State University in Pullman and then moved to Seattle (the big city) in 1974.

I know many of you are as old as I am and were here in the 1970s. For those who were not, let me try to paint a picture of the times. Does anyone remember the admonition “Will the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights?” That was in 1971. Remember the recession? Boing, the main employer in town, had laid off thousands of workers and the city was in a funk.

I was a young person in my 20s just trying to survive. With a degree in journalism, I worked as a temporary office worker, as a parking lot attendant, as a community organizer in the VISTA program, as a reporter at The Facts newspaper, all the while looking for a job or a better job. When I couldn’t get hired as a cocktail waitress, I was offered a “job” as a topless dancer working for tips.

We lived collectively, partly to save money but also because we believed in collective living. Those big mansions on Capitol Hill made great collective houses. We struggled to pay for groceries and heat. But at least rent was much less expensive than it is now.

Tradeswoman historian Vivian Price wrote about this period: “Seattle was a magnet city in the 1960’s and 1970’s, attracting people who were interested in social change to move there…Seattle was on the cutting edge of social movements. It was a city known for being a center for the women’s movement, with a thriving lesbian and gay culture, a strong old and New Left, and a vibrant movement among communities of color. Activists from each of these movements crossed paths and in some cases supported one another’s efforts. In some cases, support became collaboration, to each other’s mutual advantages.”

The city was a cauldron of dissent. Left and communist organizations flourished. The Vietnam War continued. Angry discontented citizens demonstrated in the streets. Many people felt the only solution to our foreign policy crisis was to overthrow the state. Bombings were frequent.

At the same time community activists sought to build new institutions in sectors that were not serving us—women’s and poor people’s health care, medicine, the food industry, banking, transportation, living arrangements, marriage, work. The University YWCA became a focal point of women’s organizing.

The 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave us new employment rights, but they had not yet extended to the construction trades. We formed an organization, Seattle Women in Trades. We were just rabble—unemployed women who wanted good paying jobs. From the beginning we had two powerful adversaries—the contractors and the unions.

Our struggle was for affirmative action. We demanded access to jobs that had been denied to us. We saw ourselves as part of the feminist movement and also the civil rights movement.

In Seattle we collaborated with several other organizations:

  • Mechanica, founded in 1973 and connected with the YWCA, sought to help women find jobs in nontraditional fields
  • United Construction Workers Association, a group of black people led by Tyree Scott and Bev Sims who had been agitating for entry to the construction trades since the 1960s
  • The Alaska Cannery Workers Association, active since the 1930s, was made up of Filipino workers who traveled to Alaska to work
  • The Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, LELO, founded by United Construction Workers, Alaska Cannery Workers and the farmworkers union, in 1973

Even at that time Seattle was miles ahead of other cities in regard to affirmative action. And this is the question I pondered for decades and I hope you will help me answer: Why was Seattle so far ahead? Let me pose some possible answers.

  • First, the Northwest has a history of radical dissent and union organizing that goes way back. We stood on the shoulders of those activists
  • Women, laid off elsewhere after WWII, were still working in the shipyards by the 1970s. I heard about women working mucking out the tankers.
  • The black freedom movement had a profound impact on women’s fight for equal employment. United Construction Workers led the way in the 1960s and early 70s with street actions.
  • Black men had filed a class action lawsuit in 1969, which resulted in the Seattle plan. It became a national model for affirmative action in the construction industry.
  • Radical Women, Clara Fraser and the fight to integrate Seattle City Light was crucial. I wish I had time to tell this story. Women who got in as line workers were subjected to horrific harassment. One woman, Heidi Durham, fell from a power pole and broke her back.
  • Mechanica and early feminist organizing through the YWCA.
  • Supporters within the city government created local goals and timetables for women in nontraditional jobs–12% in 1973.
  • Finally I credit individual humans. Pat Anderson, one of the original organizers of WIT, worked closely with UCWA, ACWA and LELO. She was the glue that held our coalition together. Pat died in 2009. I don’t want her contribution to our movement to be lost to history.

I say we failed to achieve critical mass, but let’s look at some of what we accomplished on a national scale.

  • Our 1976 lawsuit against the US Department of Labor (USDOL) gave us Federal regulations laying out goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades.
  • We pushed for and won state and local affirmative action programs.
  • There had been no women, and then our numbers increased to 2.7 percent in the construction trades, about where they have remained ever since.
  • We succeeded in integrating some nontraditional blue-collar jobs like bus driver, mail carrier, police and firefighter.
  • We built coalitions with others in the civil rights movement.
  • We organized awesome conferences and trade fairs like the 39thWashington Women in Trades fair yesterday. Our next international conference, Women Building the Nation, will be here in Seattle October 12-14, 2018.
  • We collaborated with unions and the labor movement.
  • We worked to get women’s issues addressed in contract negotiations.
  • Through court cases, we made laws against sex harassment.
  • We implemented sexual harassment training of foremen, contractors and coworkers.
  • With few resources, we built organizations in many states and a national network of organizers
  • We addressed unmanly issues such as PPE and on-the-job safety.
  • We created publications like Tradeswomen Magazineas a way to tell our stories and interact with tradeswomen around the country and the world.
  • We built a vibrant diverse international movement still active today. I would argue that we changed the world.

I was one of the founders of Seattle Women in Trades. When we first started we were just a bunch of women who wanted decent work. Why did we want jobs in construction? Money. Trades jobs paid three or four times what “women’s jobs” paid, enough to support a family. Also we wanted an escape from confining office work. We wanted an escape from pumps and pantyhose. We wanted to build something. We wanted to break down the barriers.

panelists
Panelists Randy, Zan and Paula

In the 1970s we were lucky to have CETA, a federal job-training program. In Seattle we had Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center, which had classes in electrical wiring, plumbing, carpentry. That six-month program was my destination. But women first had to reckon with sexism. I was asked if I could type and when I replied yes (the last time I admitted that), they told me I was not eligible for the electrical training program because I already had skills that would just go to waste. Fast-talking and possibly a threat got me in and that training was the basis for my career as an electrician.

My goal was to get into the electricians union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But when I applied, I was rejected. They said I was too old. I was 26. That’s when I decided to move to San Francisco.

I arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1976. There it was the same story. We founded organizations for women in blue-collar nontraditional work, but most of us were still wannabes. We still didn’t have jobs and the construction unions’ doors were still closed to us, though they were feeling pressure to integrate. I started a contracting business with a partner, and then joined Wonder Woman Electric, an all-female contracting company. Later, in 1980, I was able to join the union only because San Francisco was experiencing a construction boom and they needed skilled workers.

In 1976, with the help of several feminist law firms including Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center in San Francisco, women sued the USDOL for discrimination. This lawsuit resulted in goals and timetables for women in construction trades, 6.9 percent at the beginning. Seattle was used as a model in the 1978 federal regulations. Of the eleven women who signed on to the lawsuit, three were from Seattle Women in Trades: Diane Jones, Mary Lou Sumberg and Beverly Sims. The others were from San Francisco, Washington DC, Fairbanks Alaska and Walla Walla WA.

When tradeswomen heard about the federal regulations, signed into law 40 years ago on May 8, 1978, we celebrated! We did the math and figured it would only be a few years until we achieved critical mass in the trades. We thought if we could just get to ten percent, we would be less isolated and might be able to change the male culture of the construction site. If Jimmy Carter had stayed in the White House we might have made it, but in 1980 Reagan was elected and he immediately began dismantling affirmative action programs. We still had the laws, but no enforcement.

The right wing successfully challenged our old organizing strategies. In the 90s and aughts in California and Washington anti-affirmative action ballot measures essentially made affirmative action illegal. We could no longer do targeted enforcement in these states. Affirmative action, the most important tool we had to fight employment discrimination, was effectively dead. Class action lawsuits had been an effective tactic in the 70s, but new restrictions have put an end to that.

Here’s my short answer to the question: Why was Seattle so far ahead?

  • People of color (men and women) paved the way for women fighting for affirmative action.
  • The first class action lawsuit filed in 1969 by LELO succeeded in creating the Seattle Plan, an early affirmative action plan.
  • We formed effective coalitions with other organizations. Tradeswomen were and still are a tiny demographic and coalitions are necessary.
  • Seattle’s kickass feminist activists built some of the earliest and most effective tradeswomen advocacy organizations. Some of them are here with us today.

We have some distinguished activists from the Tradeswomen Movement here today, women who have spent their lives in service to our cause. I’d like to introduce Connie Ashbrook, the founder and ED (retired) of Oregon Women in Trades and Nettie Doakes of Seattle City Light. Now let’s hear from the tradeswomen panelists: Plumber Paula Lukaszek, Ironworker Randy Loomans, and Plumber Zan Scommodau.

To cap off my trip to Seattle, I visited some of my old haunts with a friend from back in the day. I was surprised to see the Comet Tavern still there on the edge of Capitol Hill. So much else has changed in Seattle. When I told the bartender I’d danced on the bar the night Nixon resigned, August 9, 1974, he said, “This beer’s on the house.”

To watch the video of this event: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos?videoid=x91548

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Madeline Mixer

Advocate for Tradeswomen

My dear friend Madeline Mixer has died.IMG_6610

As the director of the Women’s Bureau District IX of the U.S. Department of Labor, and long after her retirement, Madeline was a friend to tradeswomen and women who sought jobs in nontraditional blue-collar work.

Madeline was an avowed feminist and for a time during the Reagan administration she lost her job because of it. Feminism ran in the family. She told me her mother, who lived to be 101, had been a suffragist and organized to get women the vote.

I think Madeline’s life goal was to make it possible for women to have access to jobs that could make them independent of men. Her own life experience as a divorced mother of a young child was the driving force behind her feminism. At the time women didn’t have so many options.

I met Madeline in the 1970s soon after I moved to San Francisco. As an activist trying to break barriers to women in the construction trades, I was pointed to Madeline’s office in the old federal building. There I found her in a small room with one secretary as staff. The Women’s Bureau (established in 1920) has been virtually defunded by recent Republican administrations, but even then funding was shallow.

Long before tradeswomen had an office or a staff, Madeline allowed us to use a conference room in her building for meetings on Saturdays. Fifty women might show up and we’d host a wide-ranging discussion that often focused on sexual harassment (we called it gender harassment then; there were no laws prohibiting it) and isolation on the job. We tackled the issues of race and class, strategizing how to build an organization and a movement.

Madeline understood the importance of communicating as a way to to support each other and organize. We had the idea of a newsletter for tradeswomen, something that could connect us and help women find jobs in the trades. We began publishing Trade Trax newsletter out of Madeline’s office. It was a monthly two-page tract that volunteers mimeographed, folded and mailed. We charged $1 to get on our mailing list and a couple hundred women paid their buck.

In 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still president, Madeline called me with the news that some big mucky muck from the Department of Labor was coming to town. She asked me to put together a proposal to fund a newsletter or magazine. We were granted about $5000 and Tradeswomen Magazinewas born. The grant didn’t pay for staff, only printing and mailing, and tradeswomen volunteers wrote it, then typed it into columns and pasted it up one Saturday every three months. We published it for nearly two decades. It was the principal way tradeswomen communicated with each other around the country and the world during the 80s and 90s.

Later, after she retired, Madeline funded, out of her own pocket, the newsletter Pride and a Paycheck, edited by Sue Doro, which is still being published.

In 1979, Madeline, along with Susie Suafai and other advocates, founded the nonprofit organization Tradeswomen Inc., still going today. It was Madeline who first thought of the term tradeswoman.

Madeline Esther
With Esther Peterson, director of the Women’s Bureau under JFK

I know there were many other projects Madeline championed, but she always kept us in her sights. When Tradeswomen Inc. foundered for lack of funding, as often happened, Madeline could always be counted on to slip us enough money to pay our staff person or to help us find grant funding to keep us afloat.

Madeline was an inspiration to us all partly because she never turned her back. In the early 70s she grabbed on to the issue of women in construction and didn’t let it go for half a century. Class tensions arose between tradeswomen and our advocates. We were a fiercely independent tribe and many of us didn’t trust government officials or academics or lawyers, even the ones clearly on our side. Not everyone appreciated the federal government and its representatives. But Madeline hung in there with us.

Our association was long and fruitful. We appreciated Madeline and we honored her frequently. At one event I introduced her as having witnessed more of my relationships and breakups than my own mother had. Madeline never lost her sense of humor. She reminded me that she was much younger than my mother. But, of course, she could have been my mother. We were about 20 years apart in age.

Madeline also roped her husband Joe into helping tradeswomen. He was an experienced grant writer and participated in many long fundraising meetings with us. Joe died in January after a short illness.

Madeline Mixer, never a tradeswoman herself, was arguably the most important brick in the house tradeswomen built. Her legacy of advocacy highlights the importance of collaboration. She never stopped believing in us.

Women in Trades Fair 39th Year

A bunch of tradeswomen activists organized Washington Women in Trades in 1978 and its been sponsoring the Women in Trades Career Fair annually ever since. This was its 39th year and I was delighted to be in Seattle last weekend to see the biggest women’s trades fair ever.

 

I met up with Connie Ashbrook, the recently retired director of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., one of the most successful recruitment and training organizations in the country. She introduced me to some of the Northwest tradeswomen movers and shakers.

 

My favorite part was the demonstrations. You could fire up the chain saw. You could don climber’s gear and the women of Seattle City Light would teach you how to climb a pole. Sit up in the cab of a big truck. Try walking on stilts with the painters. The welders showed me how to use the plasma cutter.

 

The show was at Seattle Center, home of the space needle, so Connie and I had to go up. I had a vision of drinking a fancy beer while taking in the 360 degree view of the city and the sound. But the space needle was a construction site in the middle of a major renovation! That meant we got to watch the glaziers installing thick glass windows. Cool. And there was a woman on the crew!

 

Sexual Harassment is Old News for Women in Trades

In the wake of harassment allegations against sexual predators including movie moguls and our president, tradeswomen applaud women who are telling their stories and rising up against this outrage.

Women in male-dominated occupations have been fighting this fight for as long as we can remember. We’ve been on the front lines of the feminist movement for decades defending our sisters, supporting legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and helping employers and unions see their responsibility on this issue. We and our fight have been invisible except to each other. Every female construction worker has experienced harassment and all of us can say #Metoo.

grafitti
Taped on the counter at my supply house, 1983. Sealtite is a type of electrical conduit.

In 1980 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction job in San Francisco. That’s how it was for us then, and that’s how it still is. Women make up less than three percent of the construction workforce. We are often alone in a crowd of hundreds of men.

I would do my job, dressed in boots, hard hat and work clothes just like the men, looking over my shoulder anticipating violence and hostility. In the porta potties amidst the ubiquitous dicks drawn on the walls would be my name underneath the sentiment “I WANT TO FUCK YOU.” I was called “the cunt.”

I spent my working life in what we now call a hostile work environment. We had no word for it then. There was no recourse. You could complain to your foreman or your union rep but they would tell you that the harassment was your own fault and if you couldn’t take it you should leave the job. You loved the work and you loved the paycheck and so you kept your mouth shut and your head down. And you depended on male allies. My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—was a Hispanic/native man whose family had been in California since it was still part of Mexico. He had my back.

Some things have changed since then and the changes are the direct result of feminist organizing. In the 1970s tradeswomen who had been the target of harassment began to bring lawsuits against employers. They lost. When the civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Jimmy Carter, released regulations declaring sexual harassment to be discrimination under federal law, women finally had legal backing.

grafitti_0001
Sister electrician Lyn Shimizu pointing out graffiti on the SF opera house job, 1997

In the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case, the Supreme Court distinguished between and prohibited two kinds of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurred when women were made offers such as a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. Equally important, however, was the hostile environment harassment where men could make the everyday workplace into a place of threats, hostility, offensive images, abusive language. This is the kind of harassment tradeswomen most frequently endure.

The movie North Country dramatized conditions that led to the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1988 by Lois Jensen and female miners at the Eveleth Taconite Company in Minnesota. After these women won a $3.5 million settlement, employers began to take notice. Our working conditions began to improve.

We were helped by a few dedicated lawyers. In San Francisco we were lucky to work with attorneys at Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center. Other legal groups included the National Women’s Law Center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum).

That sexual harassment is now against the law is the one big change tradeswomen have noticed over the years that has improved our working lives in a male-dominated workplace. In many other ways our workplace environment hasn’t changed that much. We are still underemployed, last hired and first fired, often poorly trained and generally undervalued. Yet some tradeswomen have had successful careers and are retiring with good pensions. Some have become apprenticeship directors, union business agents, and chairs of state building trades councils. We have built organizations and networks across the country to improve our lot. I just returned from our national conference, this year in Chicago, Women Build Nations. It started as Women Building California, sponsored by the California Building Trades Council and Tradeswomen Inc. in 2001 and has now become international, this year sponsored by the National Building Trades Unions and Chicago Women in Trades. A record 1600 women and male allies attended. Workshops on sexual harassment were featured, as always. But the construction industry now has policies in place to train workers and to prevent harassment.

Tradeswomen are glad sexual harassment is now a mainstream issue, but for us it’s nothing new. We’ve been resisting for decades and still we persist.

 

What Old Tradeswomen Talk About

My friend Marg was building a coffin for her friend Bob.

Marg was happy and excited that she could give back in this way, being a carpenter. But her project plans had to take into account her disability, a persistent back pain that had put an end to her career as a building inspector and that she now spends her life managing.

When we get together Marg and I often collaborate on inventions and engineer projects that never get built. But now she was actually completing one of them.

The funeral home had given Marg the dimensions of the concrete box that the coffin would have to fit into with the admonition that another coffin builder had exceeded the dimensions and at the burial the coffin had not fit.

At lunch with our retired carpenter friend Pat, Marg described her plan—a rectangular box rather than the typical hexagonal coffin shape. She used one four by eight sheet of plywood ripped lengthwise for the sides and ends. Another ripped sheet made the bottom and top. She made the handles with rope.

“I had the lumberyard rip the ply for me, to save my back,” said Marg. “I can still use a Skil saw for short lengths but I don’t do ripping anymore.”

She screwed a ledger around the inside of the box so the bottom could just be dropped in and sit on the ledger. I’m an electrician, not a skilled carpenter, so I was proud of myself for knowing that a ledger is the ribbon of wood attached to the framing of a wall that the floor hangs on. I could totally visualize it.

“What size plywood are you using?” asked Pat.

“Half inch,” said Marg.

“Cross bracing?” asked Pat.

“Well, no,” said Marg. “I don’t think it needs it. I used structural plywood. Anyway, the coffin is now at the funeral home.”

Pat and I looked at each other and each knew what the other was thinking. I imagined the bottom piece of plywood bending with the weight of Bob’s body, the ply slipping off the ledger and the bottom piece along with the body falling out the bottom of the coffin as it was lifted up.

A moment of collective panic ensued. Marg frowned. She is a worrier.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Pat.

Marg’s description of her liberal use of glue and screws eased my concern.

Marg says there have been great strides made lately in screw technology. Hex head screws that go in easily and you don’t have to pre-drill.

“Remember when we didn’t have battery-operated drills?” I said. “I had to reach into my tool belt for a hammer and an awl to start the hole, and then screw in the screw with an old fashioned slotted head screwdriver. In those days we used ¾ inch sheet metal screws to strap our pipe to plywood. I had awesome forearms. People noticed my forearms.”

“Yeah, I had an awesome back till I fell off that ladder,” said Marg.

“And my knees were once awesome,” said Pat, who was recovering slowly from a recent knee replacement.

We were just generally awesome.

Why Appointments Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susie Suafai: Still Advocating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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