What’s Class Got to Do with It?

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part Two

Lawyers made me dumb.

Or maybe it was all in my own head.

Serving on the board of a law firm with a bunch of high-powered lawyers turned me from an articulate leader to a person who doubted my own abilities.

The non-profit law firms, Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and Employment Law Center (ELC) partnered with my organization Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) on critical projects during the 1980s. Our goal was equity in employment and specifically integrating the construction trades which had excluded women and people of color from high-paying jobs.

I loved the lawyers at ERA because they thought outside the box. They understood that social movements cannot be all about litigation and they were willing to work with us to try other tactics.

Sometime during the ‘80s, after having worked together on a lawsuit, I was invited to lunch by the director, Nancy Davis and staff attorney Judy Kurtz (it was a cheap Mexican place South of Market near the ERA offices). They sat me down and asked if I would like to join the ERA board of directors. I was delighted. I was surprised. I was flattered. Could they really want a tradeswoman activist to sit on their board with a bunch of big law firm attorneys? Of course I said yes.

I was no stranger to boards of directors. TWI had been a 501(c)3 since 1979 and I served on its board. At that time, I was also on the board of Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) along with another tradeswoman, carpenter Tere Carranza. But this was different. I would be the lone blue-collar worker among 10 or 15 attorneys. I did understand that my role on the board would be “client representative” and I was happy that ERA sought out such representation. I vowed to be the best client rep ever.

Rooms with a View

ERA board meetings took place in the high-rise offices of big San Francisco law firms where the board members worked, usually in the boardroom, always with an impressive view of the city. I could not stop oooing and ahhing and realized I never would have gotten into these exclusive places otherwise (except that as an electrical inspector I sometimes got to inspect high-rise construction sites). Occasionally they would be held in the crowded, run down ERA offices in the slummy South of Market neighborhood.

Unlike the TWI board meetings, where the board doubled as the staff (we called it a working board), ERA board meetings benefited from staff backup. We got a packet of material with minutes, agenda and background information. We got the benefit of expert consultants’ advice. Meetings were well organized and informative. I rarely had much to say.

My presence was more useful for fundraising. I would come to meetings with foundation program managers dressed in Carhartts, hard hat in hand, a real live example of ERA’s final product—a woman with a high paying trades job. My individual fundraising contacts were few, and I had already maxed out the contacts I had. Friends, I feared, would avoid me on the street so as not to be asked for money to support TWI, which was always in debt.

Still, I could make calls to moneyed folks when a list was handed to me during fundraising campaigns. We usually worked in pairs, and one time I sat at lunch with my comrade and asked a patron for $10,000 (we got it).

These forays into the world of wealthy lawyers sparked a range of mixed feelings and increased my awareness of class. I was constantly comparing the wealth of ERA (actually a rather poor nonprofit) to the poverty of TWI whose continued existence its board of directors was also responsible for. I wished I could take the list of potential donors and ask them to support TWI (I never did, of course). I knew I could make a good case. The truth was that our two organizations collaborated and we were all better for it.

I was already conscious of the class differences between me and the other ERA board members, but the difference in the fortunes of the two organizations strained them further. I was the poor relative, grateful for any crumbs that came my way. The feeling was especially magnified when we met with foundations. I remember a meeting with the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation at a time when Tradeswomen’s fortunes were sagging, one of the several times the organization nearly went under for lack of funding. The Rockefeller woman was young, chatty, dressed in fashionable New York attire (I wore my electrician work clothes). I felt so desperate in her presence that I had to keep myself from prostrating myself at her feet to beg for money. 

Poor Forlorn and Angry

I had taken on the identity of my poor failing organization. I felt poor and forlorn—and angry.

During my years on the ERA board I did speak up occasionally when I thought a working class or lesbian voice needed to be heard. Lawyers, even progressive ones, can be conservative. One time the board president, who was a woman of color, gave me a dressing down right in the meeting. 

“You are not the only person here who has faced discrimination,” she admonished me. Her public criticism stung. I honestly don’t know what I’d said to set her off. But I suddenly became aware of resentment flowing toward me and wondered if others on the board shared her feelings. I had thought myself a powerless person in this group. Suddenly I had power, if only negative power.

The ERA staff did appreciate my perspective and when the board president stepped down I was asked to take the position. But I had lost confidence in myself and I turned it down. What had happened to me? I certainly knew how to run a meeting, a skill I’d perfected as a kid in 4-H. I’d been leading meetings of tradeswomen for years.

Blow Up

I had never been close to the staff, or board of ERA for that matter. Staff attorney Judy Kurtz and I had a good professional relationship; we had worked together on many projects. Then, as happens with so many organizations, the founder’s impending retirement in part led to a blow up. The suggested reorganization didn’t work; the woman chosen for a newly created position was, as they say, a bad fit. I confess when I tried to discuss tradeswomen’s issues with her, she seemed clueless. Some staff resented not being considered for the position. In good faith, the leadership had hired outside the staff, seeking more diversity. But we suddenly realized how fragile relationships within the organization had become. I quickly got to know the staff and talked to them trying to understand what was happening. It was a mess. (Another issue was the plan to hire part time staff, possibly to avoid paying benefits.) Everybody was pissed off and some relationships never recovered. When the board, looking for a scapegoat, took aim at Judy, I resigned.

Tradeswomen Inc.’s relationship with ERA continued after I left the board, but the new board of directors had different ideas about the mission and goals of the law firm. They eschewed any activities not related to policy and litigation. ERA had been the leader in building coalitions within the civil rights community. For a small organization and constituency like tradeswomen, association with a larger civil rights community was necessary to achieve even notice, let alone long-term change. We felt privileged to be part of coalitions working to achieve racial and gender justice.

Also, all of us were aware that the power of organizations like ours was concentrated in the East. We were doing amazing work out here in the West, but few policy makers noticed. 

Noticed by Ford 

Tradeswomen continued to push ERA to help us fight discrimination in the building trades, and we got a chance at new programs when the Ford Foundation took notice in the early 2000s. The program manager was a friend of someone and that’s how we got an interview with her. ELC was also interested in the promised $600K. Tradeswomen participated in meetings, but program ideas seemed vague. We kept trying to get a better sense of them. The ERA rep who was working with us came with us to Denver for a national tradeswomen conference. All was happy. We were sisters in struggle. Only later did we find out that ERA was awarded the money with no stipulations to create programs for tradeswomen. We felt used by ERA. ELC got left out of the loop and this resulted in strained relations between the two law firms. Some staffers cut ties with ERA entirely. All over money. Of course, Tradeswomen had learned this lesson in the past. Funders, and especially the federal government, make all of our organizations compete for a tiny sum of money they allocate to programs. 

Lessons for the Future

What did we learn from our years’-long collaboration with ERA and ELC? 

*Small organizations like Tradeswomen need to find partners. We can’t do it alone.

*Litigation can be crucial to civil rights movements, but cannot be the only tactic.

*Relationships are important, more important than money. 

*In our “classless society” class is still a thing.

We All Needed a Good Lawyer

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part One

The envelope delivered to my small flat in San Francisco’s Mission District, shared with three other women, was fat with a far away return address. I knew what it contained even before opening the envelope—a cry for help—and I also knew there would be nothing I could do about it. 

I was already involved in the tradeswomen movement when I relocated to San Francisco from Seattle in 1976.  As a publicly identified tradeswoman activist, I would get letters from women all over the country complaining of horrific harassment and discrimination in nontraditional jobs. I felt powerless. We didn’t even have an organization, let alone a program to help. What these women needed was a good lawyer.

During the 1970s, we activists formed organizations all over the country. In 1979 we started a nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., to provide support and advocacy for tradeswomen, but we weren’t able to secure funding. With no staff we were run by volunteers—unemployed tradeswomen.

Enter Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a law firm begun in 1974 by feminist lawyers with a focus on defending women’s employment rights. I remember sitting around on the floor in somebody’s living room in the late ‘70s strategizing about how to open up jobs to women that had traditionally belonged to men. That’s when I met Judy Kurtz, a staff attorney at ERA, and we began to collaborate. Later I served on the ERA board of directors for many years.

Looking at the Big Picture

Ours was an anti-poverty strategy. The feminization of poverty was a popular buzzword (still applicable today). Women, especially female heads of households, were becoming poorer and poorer in relation to men. Well-paid union jobs in the construction trades could lift up our gender if we could open them to women. Apprenticeship programs in the construction trades like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, ironwork, and operating engineer only require a high school diploma or a GED to enter. Then the training is free and the apprentice works and earns a wage while she is in school. There are no college loans to repay. We saw these jobs as a path to financial independence for women.

ERA had been part of a national class action lawsuit against the US Department of Labor which resulted in the creation of federal goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades. New regulations took effect in 1978. The goal was to have 6.9 percent of the construction workforce be women on federally funded jobs. Having federal law on our side buoyed us while Jimmy Carter was president, but as soon as Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal affirmative action laws and guidelines were no longer enforced. We had to be creative. We decided to focus on the state level where there was still some commitment to enforcing affirmative action regulations.

Focus on California

Tradeswomen Inc. was fortunate to work with lawyers who were willing not only to take our individual cases, but also to help us strategize about using class action lawsuits to desegregate the workforce. We wanted to make law, to actually create change. 

The building trades in California include about 35 apprenticable trades and each trade has a union with different rules, and each union has many locals throughout the state. Not a single apprenticeship program out of hundreds in the state was even close to meeting goals for women’s participation. What could we do to get them to comply?

By 1980 we had some history with all the players. Our partner, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP), was placing women into trades apprenticeships in California, working with the apprenticeship program directors and compliance officers. 

The unions were a huge barrier to women but we chose not to take legal action against unions. Our goal was to work with unions, be part of the union movement. Besides, there were so many! So we decided to sue the enforcer.

Suing the State

The State Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) oversees apprenticeship programs and is charged with enforcing affirmative action goals, but they would routinely give a pass to programs that claimed to have made a “good faith effort” to meet the goals. Partnering with Tradeswomen Inc., ERA filed suit against DAS for failure to enforce the goals. The lawsuit resulted in a requirement that the state produce quarterly statistical reports which allowed us to evaluate their progress. We might have had some small impact on the DAS, but we had to take them back to court for contempt five years later. Nothing had really changed.

Then we took on the DAS through the Little Hoover Commission, which investigates state government operations. The public testimony of many tradeswomen got attention, even an article in the New York Times. The investigation ended with DAS getting its funding cut by the Republican administration, which did nothing to help our cause.

Then came a period when DAS made a big turnaround on our issues. It was during the administration of Gray Davis, the Democratic governor elected in 1999. He was only in office for three years when the Republicans mounted a successful recall campaign against him. Davis appointed a friend of tradeswomen to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a Black man from the painters’ union. Suddenly there was some funding to promote women in trades and we partnered with the state agency to sponsor some great programs, like the dedication of the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond where we got to commune with the Rosies, and a trades day for Bay Area high school students. We loved working with the DAS staff, a bunch of smart feminists. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger took over as governor, he brought back into state government all the guys from the previous Republican Wilson administration, and Henry Nunn was axed. It did show us that the state could do the right thing with the right leadership. It also reinforced our impression that Democrats are way different from Republicans.

Part of the Civil Rights Movement

From the very beginning we saw ourselves as part of the larger movement for civil rights and we worked in coalition with other civil rights groups to publicize and also to defend affirmative action programs. In 1977 we were active in a coalition that formed around the Bakke case, which upheld affirmative action in college admission policy. We also partnered with ERA and other civil rights organizations to oppose proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative in 1996 (we lost, and a proposition to overturn 209 in 2020 lost). Some of our partners in the West Coast coalition included Bill McNeill of Employment Law Center; Joe Hogan, retired OFCCP; Tse Ming Tam of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and their founder Henry Der; Eva Paterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; and Superlawyer Brad Seligman. These are luminaries in the social justice sphere and we were so lucky to have their support.

Tradeswomen Monitoring Network

We also collaborated on other projects involving coalition partners like trades unions and the Human Rights Commission. We went to lots of meetings of DAS and its community body, the California Apprenticeship Council to make the labor community aware of their responsibilities. Susie Suafai, who had directed WAP, was hired to monitor the Oakland federal building project—one of the few projects to meet federal affirmative action goals.

This willingness of ERA to use staff time to advocate for us as well as litigate was a huge plus. Litigation was important to our movement, creating the original goals and timetables and affirmative action regulations so crucial for women’s entry into these jobs. But we knew well that litigation alone does not make a movement.

As class action lawsuits became harder to win, and courts were filled with Republican-appointed judges, litigation was a less effective strategy for change. Tradeswomen and ERA continued to look for ways to work together. In the early 2000s we applied together for a grant from the Ford Foundation. ERA received the grant, but Tradeswomen saw none of the money, nor did any program result as far as we could tell. We felt used and the relationship foundered. Another casualty of this fight for funding was ERA’s relationship with the Employment Law Center, a partner in the DAS suit and other related discrimination lawsuits. ELC was directed by Joan Graff, another hero in our battle for affirmative action. This is just one example of how the fight for funding pitted organizations with similar goals against each other.

The ‘80s saw the decline of affirmative action. The ‘90s was a period of working to keep in place the laws and regulations we had fought so hard for, even though they weren’t being enforced. President Clinton appointed Shirley Wilshire as head of OFCCP. She came out of National Women’s Law Center, one of our coalition partners. 

We put together a national coalition to pressure the OFCCP to enforce the regulations and increase the percentage of women on federal contracts. We had the support of the White House, but Congress was controlled by Republicans. We planned to file an administrative petition asking for higher goals for women and enforcement of federal regulations, but Wilshire and federal officials argued that we should keep our heads down and hope that Congress didn’t notice and remove the enforcement regulations entirely.

Tradeswomen activists learned about the laws that affected us and we continued to pay attention to the law as it changed through the years. The biggest change for us on a day-to-day level was that sexual harassment was made illegal. This happened not through the passage of a single law, but through a series of court cases with a lot of nudging from the feminist movement. The work of Eleanor Holmes Norton was key.

Today we still rely on ERA and feminist lawyers to push the federal government to meet its affirmative action goals on declared“mega projects” (the only goals still in effect in California). We have entered a period of backlash. While trades have opened up to women technically, we still face discrimination and our ways of fighting back have been restricted.

The Birth of Our Movement: Tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area

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 BNEWay 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.

BCAW by JEB
(c)2015 JEB (Joan E. Biren)

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.

Anti-poverty strategy

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.

Tradeswomen Inc.

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 1.32.07 PMIn 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.

To be continued.

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