Women Building the Nation: A Short History of Tradeswomen Conferences

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

First National Gatherings

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

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

We Meet Debra Chaplan

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

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Tradeswomen dancing to DJ Joey’s tunes

CA Building and Construction Trades Council

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

Northern California Regional Conference

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

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

We Launch Women Building California in 2002

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

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Carolyn Williams speaking

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

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

Tradeswomen Put on a Show

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

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Registration with SBCTC staff and Susie Suafai (R)

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

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

Women Building the Nation

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

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

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

                                                                                               

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Thoughts upon Leaving the Tradeswomen Board

As I leave the Tradeswomen Inc. board, after four decades as a tradeswoman activist, I ask myself if there’s any way my experience can be helpful to all of you who are still actively working to help women enter the trades. Are there lessons I’ve learned that can be passed on? What do I know that might be useful to you?

I got involved in this movement because I wanted a job that didn’t require wearing pantyhose and pumps or sitting at a desk for eight hours, and I wanted a decent paycheck. These are things that haven’t changed. Union trades jobs still pay good money, even as unions are under attack and wages are slipping. Training in the apprenticeship programs is good if you can get in. They are still free and don’t require more than a high school diploma.

We still have good reasons to want these jobs, which are the same reasons we are kept out: decent wages and working conditions, a union contract, no distinctions between men’s work and women’s work. You don’t have to beg for a raise. All are paid the same.

The laws and regulations that protect us came about through our civil rights activism and through lawsuits. In California, they were abrogated through the initiative process and racism (Proposition 209 in the mid-1990s).

The original goals and timetables that resulted from a 1976 lawsuit against the US Dept. of Labor acknowledged that women must constitute a critical mass in nontraditional workplaces to succeed. Women never reached that critical mass and we still find ourselves isolated and harassed on the job, when we can find work. The Carter administration had our backs and women started to break barriers all over the US. Then Reagan took over in 1981 and immediately began to dismantle affirmative action.

The first thing Reagan did was to de-fund job programs. Our partner in San Francisco, Women in Apprenticeship Program, managed to hang on a little longer by sheltering under the umbrella of another program, but they, too, finally had to close. In those years, WAP placed women in apprenticeships and TWI advocated for and networked with them. We made a great team.

WAP had funding and a staff. TWI was always broke. We hired our first ED in 1983 right after we sponsored the first national tradeswomen conference (an all-volunteer effort). For many years our staff was one part-time director, always complaining of overwork and not enough paid hours. At every retreat we would pledge to raise enough money to expand, but I don’t believe we ever could until the 2000s when we got a WANTO grant from USDOL. There were times when we had to lay off our staff, and volunteers always stepped in to take up the slack.

We did keep track of what sister organizations were doing, how they got funding, what programs they sponsored. There was funding for pre-apprenticeship training programs but that wasn’t our mission and there were others in the Bay Area who did that. Still, in the early 1990s we agreed to partner with another organization (Women Empowering Women) to build a training program. I won’t list the mistakes here, but it was a disaster and we ended up $50,000 in debt.

Throughout its history TWI worked in coalition with other civil rights organizations to maintain the laws and regs we had fought for and won in the 1960s and 70s. Equal Rights Advocates (especially staff attorney Judy Kurtz) was for a time the center of this coalition activism. We had worked with Judy to sue the state Division of Apprenticeship Standards in 1981 for failure to bring women into apprenticeships in all the trades and later to hold hearings at the Little Hoover Commission. Together we formed the Tradeswomen Policy Council. When the anti-affirmative action measure, Proposition 209, went on the CA ballot in 1996, we were in a good position to mount an opposition campaign. We lost, and Prop 209 became law the next year. It put an end to targeted outreach and enforcement for women and minorities in education and employment, essentially making affirmative action illegal in CA. Tradeswomen never figured into the arguments about Prop 209, but we were the biggest losers. I’d like to add here, it was thrilling for me (and frustrating as well) to work in coalition with people of color toward a common goal. We were all part of a movement for civil rights, and I was sorry when ERA turned its focus from advocacy back to litigation.

After that, advocating for women in the trades got much harder, and Prop 209 is the reason California’s numbers of tradeswomen are so much lower than many other states. The only affirmative action law we can rely on now is federal. Executive order 11246 requires federal contractors to employ 6.9 percent women. That’s the number that came with the federal goals and timetables in 1978. It was supposed to increase automatically. Instead, we have had to fight efforts by contractors to lower the number. Of course, that goal is now rarely enforced.

The enforcement agency is the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which has been gutted under every Republican administration. Now, the only jobs they look at are what they call Mega Projects. A construction job must be officially dubbed a Mega Project (the SF federal building was one) before goals will be enforced. There are currently no Mega Projects in our region, and so there is no enforcement of affirmative action goals on any of the big projects going on in the Bay Area. I look in vain for a woman as I drive by the Doyle Drive replacement job, funded with federal money. As far as I know there has been none. The huge SFPUC water system project has less than one percent female construction workers. Our “progressive” city should be cringing with embarrassment at this number. Instead, city officials have ignored the issue. The other federal program that still operates in California is 29 CFR 30, which requires affirmative action plans by registered apprenticeship programs. Unfortunately, it is not really enforced.

This is the state of our state in 2015. Employers don’t want to hire us and they don’t have to. We don’t even know how many tradeswomen have left the trades since the recession hit and they lost their jobs in 2008. Nobody keeps these records. We do know that we are still last hired and first fired. Actually, lack of follow-up has been a problem from day one. What happened to those women who graduated from our pre-apprenticeship training program? We don’t know. We never have funding for follow-up.

Here is one amazing thing: Tradeswomen Inc. is still here! We have an honorable mission, to help women rise out of poverty by gaining skills and well-paying jobs. There is still much to be done and you can still count me as a member of the TWI team.