Work Boots Step Out of the Closet

“Come on you can tell me,” says Bobby. “Are you gay?”

Bobby is a machinist who usually works in the machine shop but today he is helping me change fixtures in the warehouse at the corporation yard. I’m the only electrician and sometimes I need a helper. There was no laborer available and I am up on a 16-foot ladder. 

The song by the Police, Every Breath You Take, is playing on the boom box he carries around with him. 

“This sounds like a song about stalking,” I say. “It’s a threat.” 

“Hmm, I never thought about it that way,” he says, “but I guess you’re right.”

I’ve been at the San Francisco Water Department for a few months and I’m getting along alright. Especially considering I’m the only tradeswoman there except for Amy, the only female plumber. Amy is out digging up the streets every day and so I rarely see her. Sometimes we convene a two-woman support group in the women’s restroom and it’s good to know she’s there.

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Working at a Water Department pump station. My shirt reads WOMEN WORKING

I think about how to answer Bobby. It kind of annoys me that he would just ask me like that. But on the other hand I appreciate his directness. I like Bobby and he’s as close to a friend as I have among the men, but I know if I give him any information about my private life it will be all over the yard within 24 hours. Do I want all the guys in all the shops to know?

“That’s none of your business,” I reply.

Yeah, I’m a lesbian and my lover is Del, who works at Park and Rec. We were both female firsts—she the first carpenter and I the first electrician to work for the city of San Francisco. Being the first is always a burden. You are aware that you set the stereotype for all the women who come after you. You feel the whole of womankind rests on your shoulders. You know you can’t make mistakes but of course you do, and then you imagine all of womankind suffers.

Del is five foot two and slender but you don’t see her as small. Her wiry gray hair gives her a couple more inches of height. She’s got broad shoulders and large hands. And she gets power from her low voice; she sings tenor with a gay chorus, the Vocal Minority.

Del and I don’t live together but I spend a lot of time at her apartment on Potrero Hill with its sweeping view of the bay and downtown. At my place on Bernal Hill I have a roommate, Sandy, another electrician. She’s messy and has a lot of stuff and a coke head girlfriend I don’t like. So I often stay with Del. Truth is I can’t stay away. I’m mad for her.

Since I got in to the trades, my lovers have been tradeswomen. I can’t resist a woman with a toolbelt. The first woman I fell in love with was a carpenter. They say you either fall in love with her or you want to be her. For me it was both. 

I watch my lover Nancy build a house. She wears dirty blue jeans and scuffed work boots. Sweat stains mushroom on her T-shirt, which reads Sisterhood is Powerful, under a women’s symbol with a fist in its center. Sweat drips from her nose and rolls down the side of her face. Her sun-bleached curly hair sticks out from under her hardhat.

Around her hips hangs the heavy leather carpenter’s belt. It has a metal ring for the hammer and slots for the tape measure and various other tools, and pouches for the nails of different sizes. A two-inch wide leather belt holds it around her ample hips. It’s helped by wide suspenders. She grabs a handful of nails and holds them with all the heads lined up in one direction, flips them down and pounds them in to the wood with great efficiency. Tanned arms bulge as she sinks nail after nail into the sill plate. She is focused and fast, the epitome of strength and ease. When she takes a break, she rolls a cigaret and lights it with a match put to her boot. She sucks in the smoke with obvious pleasure and even though I’m super allergic to smoke and it will set me off coughing, that is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. How could a gal not fall in love with this image of power, strength, purpose. 

I was smitten and I’ve been smitten by tradeswomen ever since. And they are the only ones who really understand what I go through at work. A person’s got to have a partner she can whine to when she gets home.

Lately it’s Del who’s been having trouble at work. Dick, her foreman at the carpentry shop, doesn’t like women or queers. He does everything he can to make her work life difficult. If it weren’t for Dick, Del would get along just fine. She loves the work, not the harassment. She once overhead him call her a dyke. That’s a word we lesbians have reclaimed and embraced but he meant it in the old fashioned derogatory way.

Negotiating homophobia and sexism at work is a balancing act for us. You just know that the foreman will use any excuse to lay you off. Del knows this too, that we women must always keep our cool in these situations, but sometimes she can’t help herself. She just loses her temper and then even she doesn’t know what she might do.

One time she held off an attacker with a hand saw. If you swing it at waist level, they can’t reach you. She swung the saw in a fit of rage, acting without thinking. In that case rage saved her ass, but mostly when this happens she leaves the confrontation feeling embarrassed that she could not control her emotions. She tells me I’m much better at not losing my cool and she ascribes her rage to her hot Italian blood. 

I first met Del at a tradeswomen confab when I was working with the Wonder Woman Electric collective in 1978, but we didn’t get together as lovers until 1982 while we were organizing the first national tradeswomen conference that took place in Oakland the next year. We had both been working construction downtown before starting to work for the city of San Francisco.

“I lost my temper today and now I might lose my job,” Del told me one evening when I got over to her place after work.

By that time she was remorseful. “Why do I always lose my temper? How do you manage to stay so cool?”

I think the answer lays in the ways we learned to respond to stress and abuse when we were growing up. She was a caretaker type and I was oblivious. Del says she always felt like she had antennae, that she was super aware of her surroundings. I, on the other hand, would put on virtual blinders and just continue pretending nothing was going on. This method of avoiding conflict has served me well in the trades. I pretend not to see and often I really don’t.

Soon after we got together I accompanied her to visit her family in Chicago. Right away I felt at home. They are huggers, and loud talkers, people who like to cook and eat big family meals and who live in their basements, never using the living room upstairs where couches are covered with plastic. Her mother is part of a big Italian clan—all sisters except for one brother who is treated like a king but drowned out by loud women.

“Here’s what happened,” she said. “I wanted to get my paycheck earlier in the day than Dick wanted to give it out. I had an appointment and was leaving at noon. He was being totally obnoxious about it and I got really mad at him. I said “fuck it” and walked out without the paycheck. Now he’s trying to fire me for swearing at him. I wasn’t swearing at him, it was a general fuck-it.  Anyway, just an excuse to fire me.” 

“I’m scared,” she admitted.

“What are you gonna do now?” I asked, concerned.

“I don’t have a plan except to wait to see what he does next. Maybe it won’t go anywhere.”

A few days later Dick upped the ante. He set up a kangaroo court with his supervisors and friends in the yard who sat Del down and questioned her. She had no representation or support. It was just a set up. 

That’s when Del went above the foreman’s head. We knew that the director of Park and Rec was an out gay man. Tom had gained a reputation as a respected department head who gave a shit about workers. He was also a player in the gay South of Market scene who (we heard) had tattoos all over his body. He always wore long sleeved shirts at work. 

“Tom was absolutely great when I told him the story and showed him the daily journal I’d kept about the harassment,” she said to me. Soon after that Dick was fired. 

Our gay ally had saved Del’s job, but what would have happened had he not been there?

“Are you out on the job,” she asked me later.

“Well, no. It’s none of their business.”

Del is a proponent of coming out at work. She says it’s better to give the guys the information so they will just stop gossiping about you. For women it might actually be a plus to be out. It’s a signal that you’re not interested in them romantically and you never will be, a good way to stop come-ons. Telling them you’re married with five kids works too.

At the tradeswomen conference she gave a workshop to help gay women come out. 

“If we all come out we won’t be alone,” she says. “We’ll be supporting our lesbian sisters.”

She quoted Harvey Milk: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.” 

Del was pissed when I admitted I wasn’t out on the job.“What!” She exclaimed. “You’re still in the closet at work! Don’t you see why it’s important for us all to be out? How can you leave me hanging out there on a limb? I almost lost my job!”

She had a good point—several good points. I thought about why I’d stayed closeted. It was easier. I didn’t want to risk the wrath and disdain of my co-workers. They weren’t really interested in my private life and I couldn’t care less about theirs. It was hard enough just being the only female on the job. You imagine the worst thing that could happen. They wouldn’t physically attack me. But they could refuse to work with me just as one white guy in the machine shop had refused to work with a black guy. They could refuse to talk to me, a trick men used on women all the time to get them to quit. They could fire me. I’d been hired on as a temporary worker with no employment rights. I wasn’t safe.

But I promised my lover I would come out.

My electric “shop” was a windowless closet next to the machine shop office where my boss, Manuel, and a secretary worked. They were always trying to get me to fill in when she was out sick, which happened with regularity. I had made the mistake of answering truthfully when they’d asked if I could type. I’d refused and I hadn’t relented even when Dave, the auto shop foreman cried crocodile tears as he tried to type with hands missing several of their fingers. Somehow the guy was still able to work on trucks. But that was men’s work.

One day Manuel made a reference to my husband. That was my opening. I hadn’t had to wait long. 

“I don’t have a husband,” I said. “I’m gay.”

When you come out to them, men are either totally shocked or they tell you they knew all along. Manuel was shocked, but he recovered quickly. 

I didn’t have to tell anyone else. Word got around the yard. I heard one of the machinists, a religious nut, had moved me into the hated category. But he was someone I could avoid. 

Bobby was cool. “I knew it,” he said.

When Homelessness Still Shocked

This story was published in Tradeswomen Magazine in 1995, but it’s set in the early 80s when encountering homeless people was not yet a daily phenomenon. Young folks won’t remember but there was a time in San Francisco and in other cities when we didn’t have to step over people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks. It was before Reagan, as governor of California, closed down mental health facilities and sent their residents into the streets. Before buying a house in the city became out of the reach of most working people. Before the commutes of construction workers averaged two hours from far-flung communities on the outskirts. Before we got used to it.

To join Tradeswomen Inc. Today go to http://www.tradeswomen.org

The Good Co-worker

Here’s another story from Tradeswomen Magazine, published in 1997. Like all my fictional stories, it’s autobiographical. I was working as a maintenance electrician out of the San Francisco Water Department corporation yard. The photos are of  women building a house in Florida.

Women Run Screaming

Archiving during the pandemic shutdown–it’s a pastime of lots of us old folks. I admit to feeling nostalgic as I box up historic files and read through past Tradeswomen Magazines. The quarterly magazine was published for nearly two decades, the 80s and 90s, and it tells the story of our movement for equity in nontraditional jobs. Of all my writings published in the magazine, the short fiction still resonates best. Here’s a story from the Spring, 1987 issue.

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In the Wake of the Weinstein Conviction

I’ve been going through my collection of Tradeswomen magazines (published by volunteer tradeswomen 1981-1999) and thinking about how much of what we wrote still has relevance today. We started writing and talking about sexual harassment before the term was even in the mainstream lexicon and before we had any legal backing. We were truly foremothers in this fight, and our persistence has paid off in improved industry standards and better working conditions for women in the construction trades. Here’s a story we published in 1983.

Sisters Restoring Justice

Every woman has a retribution fantasy, what she would do to her harasser or rapist. She probably won’t tell you what it is but she has one, maybe many. 

My group of tradeswomen activists not only imagined retribution, we planned and executed it. Perhaps corrective justice is a better choice of words.

We were an organized group of women who were trying our damndest to break barriers to nontraditional blue collar work. Men wanted to keep those high-paid jobs for themselves. So when one of us finally landed a job, we were subject to harassment with the aim of getting us to quit. At that time in the late seventies  sexual harassment was not yet illegal and the term was not yet in popular use. We tradeswomen used the term gender harassment.

We were working at integrating the construction trades, bus driving, firefighting, policing, printing, dock work—all the jobs women had been kept out of. One job classification we focused on was ferryboat deckhand. Women had won a discrimination lawsuit, a judge had signed a consent decree, and a handful of women had broken into the trade. As with construction, you had to jump both the barriers of bosses and the union.

One of our biggest challenges was isolation on the job. Once you got hired, you were usually the only female there. We tried to combat isolation by recruiting more women and by organizing support groups wherever we were.

Annie McCombs was our gal on the ferries, having made it through the union process. A militant lesbian feminist with a take no prisoners attitude, Annie was committed to increasing the number of women on the waterfront, to truly integrating the trade. After five years as a ferryboat deckhand she had gained a reputation as someone who did not tolerate abuse.

Fear of violence was based on reality. A common myth among fishers and sailors was that a woman on your boat was bad luck. We had met a woman who had been thrown off a boat into the water by coworkers who intended to kill her for supposedly bringing bad luck.

Annie worked occasionally with another young woman, Patricia. She was American Indian, a lesbian and only 18 with little work experience. One day Patricia approached Annie and told her about a guy on the job who harassed her mercilessly. The harassment had turned violent when they worked together on the night shift. He had locked them in to a bathroom they were assigned to clean and shoved her up against the wall. Only the night watchman knocking on the door saved her from being raped. He assaulted her again the next night but she fought back and was able to break free.

Annie helped Patricia meet with her boss and the union rep, going through all the required motions. They got nowhere. The next step would be litigation, but we activists did not recommend women file individual lawsuits. That got you blacklisted and unemployed.

We resorted to direct action. Annie called a meeting and 30 women showed up. She told us about the situation and we began to strategize. How could we get this guy to back off and stop harassing our sister? We had heard about a group of women stripping a rapist naked and tying him to a pole in the middle of town. That was a great fantasy, but none of us was willing to take the chance of being arrested for assault. Whatever we did would have to be hands off. We also wanted our action to be collective, something we could all participate in. We needed to make sure this guy knew that what he was doing was wrong and that it had to stop. It would be great if the woman he had targeted could confront him directly, if we could help her feel safe enough to do that.

Jan, a tradeswoman sister, spoke up. We needed to confront this guy on our own terms in a place of our choosing, not at work. She suggested that one of us should get him on a date. This seemed crazy to me. I was never any good at picking up men, but other women in the group assured me it wasn’t that hard. Hadn’t we been trained all our lives to do this? Jan volunteered to be the bait and we worked out an elaborate plan for her to pick him up.

We would lure him to a secluded location in Golden Gate Park, surround him and let his victim confront him. I, for one, did not see how this was possible. How would we get him to the park?

Jan planned to invite him to a party at the deYoung Museum and make some excuse to get him to the nearby rose garden. The rose garden is surrounded by tall hedges, perfect for hiding behind. And it’s relatively dark. Our action would take place at dusk.

Word of the action got around and our planning meetings expanded to 50. Everybody wanted to be involved with this action. What militant feminist wouldn’t?

We considered the possibility that the harasser might have a gun. Annie knew that some deckhands carried handguns in their seabags. Many of us practiced karate and self-defense and we engaged martial arts experts to take command in case our perp responded violently. A woman was assigned to each limb and his head in case he reached for a gun or bolted. But unless he attacked, we were not to touch him.

Women volunteered for specific tasks: lookouts, runners, watchers from park benches. We would not leave Jan alone with the man and risk his assaulting another woman.

In the meantime, Annie had drawn up a map of the park with our location and planned out the timing. We were to hide in the bushes near the trail and pop out as he and Jan came by. 

I was dubious. Could we really pull this off? There were so many variables. What if he didn’t go with Jan? What if he saw us in the bushes? What if the timing were hours off?

Fifty women had assembled some blocks away at a staging area in the Haight Ashbury when a carload of country women from Mendocino showed up. They had heard about the action through the lesbian grapevine. Now numbering more than 50, we all made our way to the rose garden.

We hid behind hedges and trees, waiting silently for maybe 20 minutes. Everybody knew the plan. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Jan and the guy walking down the trail. Jan really did it! Our butch dyke sister had transformed into a fetching het woman. She wore a pink sweater wrapped casually around her shoulders.

Just as they crossed in front of us the spotter blew a whistle, the designated woman stepped out into the trail, and then all the women materialized and circled the guy. Jan melted into the crowd.

My only job was to stand in place with a mean look on my face. I can tell you this is not so easy when one feels exhilaration.

Our chosen spokeswoman stepped forward menacingly. She addressed the harasser. “Don’t talk, just nod if you understand.” 

A woman was assigned to remind him to nod. He did not need to be reminded.

“We know you have been harassing women on your job. We know where you live. We know the car you drive. If you continue to harass women we will come and get you,” she said.

I could see his knees shaking. It looked to me like he had peed his pants.

Patricia stepped forward but she was not able to speak. Her partner spoke for her, naming the harassment.

Finally the crowd of angry women parted and let the man out. He was ordered to return to his car and not to look back.

Our action had succeeded. We were jubilant. A cheer went up from the 50 women. Then we quickly decamped to an agreed-upon location for a post-mortem and to celebrate. 

As for the harasser, he was not seen around the waterfront for several months. Later, when he took a part-time job with the company, he made sure to keep his head down when passing Annie or Patricia. Soon after that he disappeared altogether.

Joan Weir: The Only Girl in the Welding Shop

In 1972, a junior in high school, she had already taken all the drafting classes her Los Angeles school offered. She’d been working with her father building a car so she took her father’s advice and enrolled in the welding class. The teacher said if she could fire up a torch she could stay in the class. It was a test no one else had to take. She was the only girl.

Joan production welding light poles for the Bay Bridge, 1976

She took the class and got hooked on welding. The first year she excelled so much she was teaching the other students how to weld. By her senior year she was shirking all her other classes, spending days in the machine shop building projects. That year she won a national award from the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation for TIG welding brass but she didn’t graduate high school. Joan Weir was a welding phenom.

That summer she got her first job. It was piecework building motorcycle accessories. She said, “They needed someone who could TIG (tungsten inert gas) weld. That was new technology back then. It’s an electric spark that comes out of a piece of tungsten, where you can weld ferrous and non-ferrous materials and it’s like a fine art because it’s a smaller weld you’re making.”

Again she was the only female on the job. “I was welding in a metal building where it was well over 90 degrees. I remember lifting my welding hood to find that my sleeve was on fire. I looked down the line and all the guys were just watching. They weren’t helping me. They just wanted to see me take my shirt off. Of course I had a T-shirt on underneath so it was so ridiculous.”

I first met Joan Weir in the late 1970s. With our mutual friend, Cheryl Parker, we bonded as some of the few early tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cheryl and I got into the electrical trade and Cheryl had attained the rank of Chief Building Inspector in the city of Richmond, California when she died of ovarian cancer in 1992. In 1976 Joan and Cheryl had traveled with a convoy of tradeswomen and their supporters to Los Angeles to petition the state government for affirmative action goals and timetables for women in construction apprenticeship.

L-R Cheryl Parker, Joan MacQuarrie, Joan Weir

“It was a great moment because we were standing up and talking about what we were experiencing and each one of us had a different story. We got the state of California to enact goals and timetables.”

I think of Joan as a Renaissance woman. She has been a general contractor, a carpenter, a plumber, a glass blower and many other things. But Joan is primarily a welder. She lost her career and nearly her life after being set up to blow up.

In 1980 Joan was working for US Steel in Pittsburg, California as a maintenance welder. To get the job she took a welding test.

“My test was so perfect that they could not refuse to hire me so their recourse was to put me in the ugliest location, which was the cold reduction department,” she said.

“It was located in a building a mile long. We had four mills that ran consecutively. The steel was brought in in large rolls and was run through each mill to make it thinner. Each roll was a ton maybe two tons at the very end. It was called cold reduction because heat was not being applied. Rollers compressed each sheet as it went through. Water and oil were the lubricants. Next-door was an acid dip where they would roll the big sheets of steel through acid to clean them. As a maintenance welder I led a team of two millwrights and two steamfitters. And jointly we would move on a weekly rotating basis from working days, swing, and graveyard shifts.

US Steel plant, Pittsburg, CA. Credit: Wikipedia

We kept the mill running 24/7. These machines were put under a lot of pressure and they would break. The millwrights were in charge of keeping the mill running and the pipefitters would fix any of the piping, which was typically hydraulic whether it was water or air. My job as the welder was to weld any metal part that broke and I also built anything that they would need to install.

It was up to the welder to determine the time length of the repair and if it exceeded three or four hours then they would shut down the mill and all the workers on the mill would be sent home. So it was imperative to not have that happen because the union required that if the worker had already worked four hours then they would get full pay even if sent home. That would cost big bucks. I must admit I always enjoyed saying ‘Nope send your guys home. It’s gonna take at least five or six hours to repair.’

The environment at the plant was extremely unsafe. Cranes carried the large steel rolls over people’s heads. Workers died on a regular basis from the hooks breaking or the roll getting loose. Large forklifts with large extended poles on them carried the rolls along where workers were walking. And because of the extreme noise you could be walking, turn, and not realize that a forklift was right there on top of you. People were hurt on a number of occasions while I worked there.

At US Steel in 1980 it felt like we were working back in the 30s and 40s. Workers were constantly being harassed in many different ways and if you were to go up against management you were likely to end up hurt or killed. That was known. That was just a given.

After the accident Joan learned glass blowing

The United Steelworkers union covered everybody so if you had a problem with a co-worker the union couldn’t side with one worker or another so it didn’t feel like you had representation–especially as a woman.

I was the only woman welder in the plant, the whole steel industry in Pittsburg. I led a team–two very supportive pipefitters and then two millwrights who were not supportive. This one individual who was a short guy, white, Mormon, had a real issue taking orders from a woman. But I was the team leader and I got paid more.

The atmosphere in the cold reduction department was tense, unsafe and the work was really demanding. Also the air quality was really bad because we were stuck inside a building that had lots of water and oil mixed into the air we were breathing. We would get inside a mill, literally placing ourselves inside this big machinery, going down into the bowels of it. I never felt very safe going there because I knew this guy didn’t like me. I never expected him to do me physical harm but I worried that he might cause an accident.

Joan in her shop at her present job at the vineyard

A firefighter was required to stand by while I was working, as my clothing would catch fire on a regular basis because of the oil that was constantly coating us. We got used to welding this way. You’d turn, stop welding, ask the fire guy to shoot you with water, he’d douse your clothes and you’d go back to welding again.

One night I was working graveyard so it was a small crew throughout the building. I was welding something up in my weld shop and had to go get some material and I came back to find this guy using my welding hood and welding on my bench. I shouted to him because of the loud machinery and he stopped, he put up the hood, and he back-fisted me. He hit me across my face so hard that I landed against my welding tanks and my hardhat split open.

Two of the other guys on my team came to see what happened. I was injured so the supervisor was called. He sent me home and he let my attacker stay on shift. I was told to come back the following morning for a meeting with the shop steward and the guy who physically attacked me. The shop steward just said that this was something we had to get over.

At that point I contacted an attorney and they told me to take whatever sick time I had and to get off site because it was not safe for me to be there. So I took my week’s leave and then I started calling in and saying that the environment was not safe for me to work in.

Birthday present

A Rosie the Riveter hood

When I showed up for work again it was swing shift on Easter Sunday. There was an emergency. A pipe had bent and needed to be repaired. I had a new pipefitter working with me so we didn’t know each other. First I asked him if he had put the safety blocks in the line because this was a high-pressure hydraulic two-inch line. Then we climbed down the sheet steel that was in the way, down into this pit and I’m up to my knees in oil and hydraulic fluid. The pipe is above the hydraulic fluid. I’ve got my firefighter up above the pit and the pipefitter is down in the pit with me and we get ready to weld it up. I light my big oxy-acetylene rosebud torch to heat the pipe and all of a sudden somebody turns on the line, pressurizes it and there’s an explosion.

My head is literally right over the pipe when it explodes. I don’t realize I’m burnt all over my head with second and third degree burns. I scramble back up the torn up steel next to me to get to my acetylene set up to turn off those valves because I’m afraid of backfire in the lines. I see the pipefitter is burnt so I grab him to get him over to the safety shower and the safety shower doesn’t work. I see a water fountain and I get him to the water fountain and I get his hands into the water and he says ‘you’ve got to get yourself water’ and at that point I start to recognize how burnt I am.

We’re brought into the lunchroom. After 45 minutes or an hour, they finally get us to the hospital, which is unable to provide critical care. So they bring me back to the cold reduction plant. At that point my eyes are shut, I can’t see. My face doesn’t have skin on it.

Nobody responded or cared how badly I was hurt. The head of the department was there and he said that I should go home. They told me only to show up for a safety hearing the following morning. Then the guard, an African American man, looked at me and said ‘I will take you home.’ He risked his job going off shift leaving early to drive me home. When I got home my partner took me to Alta Bates hospital burn unit where they kept me for a week.

She still builds

My lawyer and I went to a hearing with the EEOC. My face was still recovering from the burns but the hearing was simply about being hit by a co-worker on the job. It wasn’t about the explosion accident.

EEOC would have found in my favor but the EEOC officer asked me if I was going to take it to federal court and sue US Steel and not knowing any better I said yes. I didn’t understand that it would take five years to even get to court and I was going up against a major corporation. It would cost me and I was unemployed. So they found against me because they said if they’d found for me I couldn’t take it to court. So I lost my suit. And that ended my career in welding.

OSHA never found out about the accident. About a year later I was volunteering for Tradeswomen Inc. with Madeline Mixer at her Women’s Bureau office in the San Francisco federal building. Madeline took me down the hall to talk to the head of OSHA who was upset with me that I never contacted them. I didn’t know that I was responsible to contact them. So nothing ever happened to US Steel.

I never learned who turned the pressure back on. We all understood that US Steel was known for killing or maiming workers who complained. And that’s the way the industry ran back in those days.”

Teresa (L) and Joan at the Rosie the Riveter contest in Richmond

For many years after the accident, Joan looked like a reverse raccoon, her face red where the skin had burned off and white around her eyes, which had been protected by plastic safety glasses (they melted). Today, 39 years later, you can’t see the burns unless she points them out. Joan still loves welding and she uses her many skills at her current job working at a vineyard in Sonoma County. In her spare time she teaches beekeeping and building trades to women and girls. She lives in Santa Rosa with her wife Teresa Romaine, a retired painting contractor.

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