Look up in this city of highrises and you will see cranes. There’s lots of construction going on and presumably lots of jobs for construction workers. As in the States, I’m always on the lookout for women, and I found quite a few here. Most of the women I saw were flaggers, just like at home. But I did run into a cement mason on the street, so I’m confident there are many more women inside the buildings working in different trades.
Her job is Terminal Attendant at BC Ferries. She’s a single mom who likes her job. Benefits are good.
That’s a female laborer beyond the sign.
Ironworkers laying rod
On our way to the west coast of Vancouver Island, we saw women working at non-traditional jobs on the BC Ferries, a public/private partnership. High voltage line workers were upgrading poles and lines along Highway 4 on the island, and I wondered if any of them were electrician sisters.
One of many big buildings going up in Vancouver
The crane is on the site of a new casino being built in Vancouver
Downtown Vancouver is full of big cranes. Lots of new construction.
Just from my little anecdotal evidence, I think Canada is surpassing the US in breaking down barriers to women in construction. The signs are better here, too. Most are in a universal sign language that doesn’t require words. We saw not a single sign that said MEN WORKING.
Flagger on Hwy 4
Many flaggers are women
Workers were replacing high voltage lines along Highway 4 on Vancouver Island. I didn’t see women but it was hard to tell. Made me think of my Canadian high voltage electrician sisters.
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.
Whenever I see tradeswomen at work, I try to take their pictures. Sometimes I even get a chance to talk to them. There’s a big street project going on at the Glen Park BART station and I’ve made friends with Jackie the laborer who is usually flagging when I cross the street. She is often wearing a t-shirt that reads Fight Like a Girl. There’s a female engineer working on this project too, and I did get a couple of pictures. That’s her conferring with a foreman.
The tradeswomen movement might be the most unsung subset of the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Like the feminist movement, it did seem to erupt suddenly, simultaneously, across the country and the world. All at once in the mid-1970s women began demanding access to blue collar jobs that had been the exclusive domain of men, like construction, utility maintenance, driving, dock work, policing and firefighting.
But the movement was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Women had been working for decades toward equality under law. Women had been included—however disingenuously—in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then Title IX, the 1972 law requiring gender equity in education including sports programs. Young feminists, studying the statistics, were painfully aware that on average women working full-time made only 59 cents for every dollar made by men (in 2011 the proportion had risen to 77 cents). Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and efforts by black men to enter the white world of union construction, women began to organize toward employment equity.
In the 1970s and 80s organizations advocating for women’s access to these jobs sprang up all over the U.S.: Chicago Women in Trades, TOP-Win in Philadelphia, Northern New England Tradeswomen, Hard-Hatted Women in Cleveland, Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York, Women in Trades in Seattle.
In the San Francisco Bay Area activists first formed Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) as a project of Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE), a nonprofit organization for working women which included housewives, unemployed, retired, and women receiving welfare.
Early tactics included demonstrations and marches and efforts to enter union apprenticeships in the construction trades. The training programs, administered by joint committees made up of employers and unions, are comprehensive and free. An apprentice works full-time while completing training, usually at night during the program, usually four years. Hourly pay increases until you “turn out” as a journeyman in your trade. The apprenticeship system, especially in desirable high-paid trades like electrician, plumber, operating engineer, sheet metal and ironworker, had been closed to all but white men, primarily relatives of men already in the trade. The federal government had put in place agencies to enforce the new civil rights laws and women began to organize to tear down that wall.
Carpentry was a popular choice among women. The idea of working with wood, which it turns out construction carpenters don’t do much of—they mostly build forms for concrete–seemed romantic. The carpenters’ union was and still is the largest construction union with the biggest apprenticeship program and the most jobs. In the 1970s, it was one of the easiest apprenticeships to get into. Other crafts required applicants to take aptitude tests, submit to interviews and wait for months for a score but the carpenters used the “list” method, just creating a list of applicants, first come first served.
In 1975, with support from a sister nonprofit, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) whose purpose was to place women in these apprenticeships, women learned that getting into the carpenters’ apprenticeship was just a matter of standing in line at the union office and signing up. The night before the apprenticeship opened, women formed a line outside the union door so there would be no question about who was first. Sleeping for one night on a concrete sidewalk seemed small payment for the opportunity to enter a training program which would also assist in placing trainees in construction jobs.
When the union’s doors opened the next morning the women who had waited in line all night found that their names did not appear first on the apprenticeship list. They also learned that carpentry was a “hunting license trade,” meaning that the apprentice must first find a contractor willing to hire him before he can be indentured into the apprenticeship. Hiring and, therefore, the apprenticeship was controlled by the contractor/employers who preferred to choose known workers rather than request new apprentices sight unseen from the union’s list. The women did travel to various job sites in the Bay Area seeking work, but no contractor would hire them. They decided to look for a lawyer.
Sue the Bastards
Filing a lawsuit was a decision not taken lightly. It almost certainly meant that the filer would become a martyr to the cause and would be blacklisted from future work. It could also mean months and years of shepherding a case through the system. And, as much as it was apparent that the unions were acting as the enemy of women, the women did not want to make the unions their enemy. The unions were the only reason trades jobs paid decent wages with decent working conditions.
Litigation cannot be the sole foundation of a mass movement, but litigation in the 1970s when class action lawsuits proliferated and very often resulted in wins, became an important part of activists’ strategy for change. San Francisco Bay Area tradeswomen activists were lucky to have advocate lawyers at Equal Rights Advocates, a law firm devoted to defending working women, and the Employment Law Center. Across the country, most women fighting employment discrimination were out of luck. No lawyer would take their cases.
Lawsuits filed by individuals rarely resulted in changes to laws or regulations. Women were pressured to settle for cash and to agree not to disclose the settlement. The lawsuit that had won affirmative action goals and timetables for women in the construction trades was filed by a coalition of feminist advocates against the U.S. Department of Labor in 1976.
The case that resulted from the 1975 attempt by women to join Carpenters Local 22, Eldredge vs. Carpenters Trust, kicked around in the courts for 21 years and was finally decided in favor of the women. Judge Betty Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the union to reserve 20 percent of its job referrals for women. In her opinion, an obviously exasperated Fletcher wrote, “The bottom line is that women historically have been systematically excluded from carpentry work and for more than two decades have sought relief through the courts while the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, the craft’s gatekeeping organization, has waged a relentless battle to preserve the status quo.” But the carpenters union ultimately was the real winner. For a time, the union complied. It found plenty of women in the San Francisco Bay Area anxious to enter the trade, putting the lie to its past complaints that women weren’t interested in construction work. Then, when the 20 percent apprenticeship goal was met, the union petitioned the court to end the consent decree. The settlement agreement failed to require follow up and when the judge’s decree ended so did the hiring of women.
The women’s lawyer, Alberta Blumin of Berkeley, essentially worked for free, but there is no accounting of the legal costs to the JATC for its “decades’-long legal recalcitrance and foot dragging” (Fletcher’s words).
Goals and Timetables
In 1978, when the new federal affirmative action rules and regulations went into effect, tradeswomen and women who aimed for careers in construction celebrated. The goal for women to be hired on federally funded jobs was 6.9 percent, increasing to 9 percent over five years. Apprenticeship programs were required to indenture 23 percent women (the number was one half the percentage of women in the general workforce—46 percent). If the unions and employers actually met the goals and the federal and state governments actually enforced them, it would only take a few years for women to achieve parity in the construction trades.
The new comprehensive federal guidelines that resulted from the Department of Labor lawsuit spelled out more than just numerical goals. Titled Executive Order 11246 and upgraded under President Jimmy Carter, the law acknowledged that a critical mass of women would be needed to counter the isolation and harassment women were experiencing in nontraditional jobs. The regulations pointed out working conditions and safety as paramount.
That year, 1978, union construction apprenticeships across the US were forced to induct their first women, but most women were still alone in apprenticeship classes with men. Many dropped out. In San Francisco’s IBEW Local 6, four women began the apprenticeship. One, Pat Snow, was able to retire with a full pension after 25 years as an “inside wireman.”
The large hope was not fulfilled. The 6.9 percent goal was never met except for a few isolated jobs, and never increased. Nor was the apprenticeship goal met, except in the Seattle IBEW Local 46 program, which for seven years was headed by a female electrician, Nancy Mason.
A good percentage of women who entered the construction trades in the 1970s were college-educated and middle class. Economics was a driving factor. Unemployment was high and women had difficulty finding well-paid jobs in more traditional occupational sectors. But many women didn’t want to work as teachers, nurses or secretaries (the main historical choices). The feminist movement had posed the question: Why can’t I do this? Suddenly everything seemed possible. Women who didn’t want to dress in skirts and pantyhose, whose dream was other than sitting at a typewriter all day, who weren’t interested in teaching kids, found a welcome alternative in construction work. You could get up in the morning, throw on the same clothes you’d worn the day before, put a hard hat on uncombed hair and go to work. You could drive around town and point proudly to buildings you had built. In union construction work men and women make the same wages and the contract provides for decent working conditions and benefits.
Among the many reasons to choose construction work was free apprenticeship training and no requirement for college education. Activists saw the breaking of resistance to women in trades as a path out of poverty for women. Here was a way to counter the “feminization of poverty,” a shocking trend especially as more women in the U.S. became single heads of households. Such a demographic shift could end poverty for women and children all over the country.
In 1979, Tradeswomen Inc., a 501c-3 nonprofit, was organized by a group of advocates including Madeline Mixer, director of District IX of the Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labor; and Susie Suafai, director of WAP. The goal was to access money to expand the already successful WAP project that was placing women in Bay Area union apprenticeship programs. For a short time, under President Jimmy Carter, construction jobs opened up to women. But after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 everything changed. The Reagan administration immediately dismantled and defunded whatever affirmative action programs it could, and stopped enforcing regulations already on the books.
Women, however, continued to fight to enter construction and nontraditional jobs.
Tradeswomen love a conference, an opportunity to get together and talk shop, share stories and revel in our community: a definite antidote to our typical working lives of isolation and otherness. We started convening even before we had jobs as we tried to figure out how to break into the world of “men’s work.” In the 1970s, tradeswomen organizations took root in communities all over the country, gathering women who wanted in the trades, women who had already muscled their way in, equal rights advocates, and a myriad of supporters.
First National Gatherings
In the San Francisco Bay Area we had met regionally several times before Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) sponsored the first national conference for tradeswomen in 1983. That first national gathering in Oakland rocked our worlds. Tradeswomen activists and advocates across the country met and formed life-long bonds at that conference, coming together in the next decades to promote our cause. Finally, we were not isolated. We were surrounded by hundreds of women just like us whose main issues were getting work in nontraditional jobs, and countering harassment once we got there.
Representatives from tradeswomen groups all over the country organized the second national conference, held in Chicago in 1989, funded by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor (WBDOL). As part of this effort a national organization was born.
We Meet Debra Chaplan
Cut to 1998. TWI was struggling to figure out how to partner with construction trade unions because union construction jobs offer the best pay, working conditions and training. Tradeswomen members, organized by TWI Director Beth Youhn and Amy Reynolds, traveled up to Sacramento to the Cal Labor Fed conference. Amy, a long-time member of Plumbers Local 38, had perfected a one-woman outreach strategy, showing up at all manner of feminist and union gatherings in a hard hat and overalls, looking like Rosie the Riveter. She never failed to attract attention among the suit and tie set. The idea was to get these folks to take note of tradeswomen and the fact that our numbers in the construction trades were so low. Once we got their attention we could propose collaboration.
CA Building and Construction Trades Council
The California Labor Federation includes unions in all industries, and works mostly on legislative and political campaigns. Their annual state legislative conference takes place in the state capital, in conjunction with the State Building and Construction Trades Council (SBCTC). The Labor Fed sponsored a one-day women’s conference in an effort to outreach to female union activists. The tradeswomen came prepared with leaflets and materials to make their case and they did get the attention of one woman who, it turned out, was the best contact they could have made there.
Northern California Regional Conference
Debra Chaplan had just started working for the SBCTC as director of special programs, and she provided the connection to the building trades unions that TWI had been seeking since its inception. Debra joined with TWI to organize the November 1999 Northern California Regional Tradeswomen Conference, supported by the WBDOL. One hundred fifty tradeswomen and supporters gathered in Oakland to schmooze and strategize for the future. Electrician Marta Schultz performed “595 The Musical.” Our foremothers, Rosie the Riveters who had worked at the Kaiser shipyard in WWII attended and were honored. Herstory was made when organizers, sitting at dinner post-conference, simultaneously removed their bras while leaving shirts and blouses in place.
A resolution developed by that 1999 conference was unanimously adopted at the SBCTC’s 2000 convention, pledging the Council to intensify its efforts to recruit and retain women in all affiliate unions. With the support of its president, Bob Balganorth, the SBCTC agreed to sponsor a conference for California tradeswomen, Women Building California. The first one would be held in Sacramento in 2002 just ahead of the legislative conference that year.
We Launch Women Building California in 2002
For that first conference and for the next 13 years, Debra Chaplan has taken care of the logistics as conference organizer. She produces the invitations, programs, pamphlets, post-conference newsletters and videos, and she takes charge of organizing everything. But the program content is planned entirely by tradeswomen, to reflect our needs. TWI staff fundraises all year to raise scholarships for women in pre-apprenticeship programs, and a workshop track at the conference is devoted to them.
The first conference was only one day, but it was immediately clear that more time was needed to address all of our pressing issues. Since 2002, we’ve been spreading out a little more every year, adding workshops and plenary on Sunday and a Friday night cocktail hour, then a day for pre-apprenticeship program operators and the Tradeswomen Policy Forum.
If you’ve ever been to a Women Building conference, you know that the vibe there is awesome! All sorts of women from all over the country getting together and learning and teaching, singing and dancing and talking, all over their common bond of working in the trades. It’s a weekend camp for tradeswomen. There’s just nothing like meeting other activists from all over the world face to face.
Tradeswomen Put on a Show
Tradeswomen can put on a show, and we’ve been entertained by many talented vocalists and spoken word artists over the years. Most hilarious were the Sparkettes, a group of IBEW Local 595 sisters, acting out on-the-job encounters with our brothers. One year, circular saws and hammers punctuated a symphony written and performed by tradeswomen and the Women’s Community Orchestra.
All building trades are represented at the conference, and ours is the largest all-craft gathering of tradeswomen in the universe! Electricians have always dominated in number, some years making up as many as a third of attendees. But lately they have been given a run for their money by ironworkers. I must admit to feeling a bit intimidated when I walk into that mob of tough-looking ironworkers on Friday night. But I feel ok as long as I don’t have to arm-wrestle any of them.
Conferences have taken place in Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles. They grew bigger every year, starting with 210 participants and building to nearly 900 in 2014. The advent of social media and the involvement of international unions and their presidents have been factors in the increase in numbers in the last couple of years.
Women Building the Nation
At first we were Women Building California, focused on women in the union building trades. For a couple of years we partnered with the California Professional Firefighters Union to become Women Building and Protecting California. While tradeswomen from all over the U.S. were always welcome, and many came from other states, the conference achieved national billing when the North America’s Building Trades Unions (BCTD) agreed to co-sponsor in 2010. Buy-in was secured by the BCTD Women in the Trades Committee, thanks again to Debra Chaplan, as well as Committee Chairs Patti Devlin and Carolyn Williams. The conference then became Women Building California and the Nation.
The 2015 conference in L.A. may be the last one in California. In 2016, the BCTD plans to take over from the Cal State Building Trades and move Women Building the Nation to another city, yet to be named. A new chapter in the life of our conference is about to begin.
See you at Women Building the Nation in Los Angeles May 1-3, 2015!