Reporting on the Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago on May Day weekend: Two words: sensational and huge!
My old friend electrician Cynthia Long (IBEW Local 3 NYC) just texted me asking for news about the conference. Although it wasn’t her intention to guilt trip me, I felt bad for not having reported back to tradeswomen friends who couldn’t attend. Here are some highlights:
The climax for me was performing on stage for this gigantic audience of tradeswomen. My wife Holly and I wrote a song called Sister in the Brotherhood, and she accompanied me on the guitar. I was terribly nervous, but we didn’t blow it and that audience of rowdy construction workers liked us! Friends were kind enough to video our performance, and I will eventually figure out how to post the video on this site. (I’m old and tech challenged. It will happen). This week Donna Levitt brought me a copy of Organized Labor, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council’s newspaper. There was our picture on page 4! We feel like rock stars and the glow hasn’t yet worn off.
The conference was hosted by Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). A high point before the conference even began: CWIT’s fabu party at their headquarters and training center. I was delighted to connect up with old activists from way back and also meet young tradeswomen and CWIT trainees, many acting as greeters and volunteers.
Sisterhood T shirt
Nigerian tradeswomen activists and American tradeswomen friends
CWIT staff were fab hosts
The new generation of tradeswomen
Along with historian Brigid O’Farrell and sprinkler fitter Ella Jones, I gave a workshop called “Tradeswomen History: Learning From the Past to Change the Future.” We were able to include testimony from several “tradeswomen matriarchs” who are helping us learn from the past.
As it turned out we had a mini-reunion of some of us old tradeswomen activists from the 1970s and 80s. Carpenter Lisa Diehl, who’d been an organizer of Kansas City Tradeswomen, traveled from her home in West Virginia. She entertained us with stories of feminist actions from the bra burning banner hoisting days. Ronnie Sandler, carpenter and job training wiz, came from New Hampshire. Dale McCormick, the first female in the country to turn out as a carpenter who went on to win a place in the Maine state legislature and become state treasurer, represented Maine. We reunited with Paula Smith and Lauren Sugerman, two organizers from Chicago we’d worked with to put on the 1989 second national tradeswomen conference there. And some of the early tradeswomen organizers from Chicago were in attendance too, sporting t-shirts and sweatshirts from the 1970s.
Elevator constructor and activist LJ Dolin
Los Angeles IBEW Local 11 sisters in solidarity. Long-time activist Jane Templin (L)
Lauren Sugerman (L) and early CWIT organizers
Old timers L to R: Author Brigid O’Farrell, Sprinklerfitter Ella Jones, Carpenter Ronnie Sandler, Maine DOT advocate Jane Gilbert, carpenter Dale McCormick, electrician Molly Martin
This was the 15th Women Build conference and the 6th we have renamed Women Build Nations, including women from all over North America and other countries. It was the first in this series of conferences to take place outside of California and it brought in hundreds of women from the Midwest and other parts of the U.S. who’d never participated in the past conferences. Fifteen hundred tradeswomen of all crafts, allies and union brothers attended—the biggest tradeswomen conference ever!
I lost two dear friends last year, Alice Fialkin and Ruth Maguire. When the New York Times put out a call for 400-word essays about people who died in 2015, I wrote about my friends. Their stories didn’t make it into the Times, and so here they are. Just pretend you are reading the Times Sunday magazine section.
Alice Fialkin 1946-2015
Alice Fialkin and I reconnected just as she began losing her mind. The process of getting to know her again was fraught with misunderstandings and conflict. Our friendship taught me a lot about how to interact with a person with cognitive disability and helped me acknowledge my own cognitive limitations.
We had known each other in the 1970s as tradeswomen activists. I broke into the electrician trade. Alice was one of the first women in our generation to get a job as a city bus driver in San Francisco, one job category that has since been integrated by race and gender. Alice became active in the transit workers union and was elected president of the union local. Years passed and we lost touch. When we found each other again after we’d both retired, we learned that we had lived just two blocks from each other for 25 years.
We began walking and doing local precinct work together. When we learned that neighbors were losing their homes to foreclosure, we joined with others to form an Occupy group in our neighborhood, Bernal Heights. We went door to door talking to folks on the foreclosure lists and, in coalition with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), saved the homes of many neighbors by occupying banks and foreclosed homes, protesting home auctions and renegotiating with banks for better mortgage terms.
Alice had survived three bouts of breast cancer, but she also complained of chemo brain, a condition finally acknowledged by the medical establishment. I began to see that Alice had trouble retrieving her emails and had difficulty using her smart phone. She became paranoid. She misinterpreted social interactions and felt that everyone was against her, and often she would confront me asking why I was mad at her. Still, she continued to participate in meetings and community events. Our Occupy group made room for her and valued her long experience as an activist.
As Alice was dying and suffering from worsening dementia, the movie Still Alice, about a woman experiencing Alzheimer’s disease, was playing in theaters. I was hesitant to see it, but was glad I did. The movie helped me to understand what life must have been like from her perspective. Just as Alice Fialkin had, the movie’s protagonist Alice did the best she could to continue to engage in life.
Ruth Maguire 1925-2015
“A major influence in my life was my many years in the Communist movement,” said Ruth Maguire in a letter to friends and family on the occasion of her 90th birthday earlier this year. “I feel that becoming 90 is kind of a moment of reckoning.”
As a Boomer who has cultivated a romantic attachment to old commies, I was delighted to meet Ruth at a May Day celebration of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. Her ex-husband of many years ago, Bill Bailey, had been an ALB vet. Then I got to know Ruth while recording her oral history. Her parents had emigrated from a shtetl in a small town in Poland a century ago. She grew up in Los Angeles and lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area, raising three children.
Ruth joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party youth group, as a kid. “In the 30s and 40s, it was not outlandish to be a Communist. It was a legal political party; it ran candidates; it had a vision of a better life for struggling people everywhere,” she wrote. She left the party in the 1950s, but she never changed her core beliefs. She appeared in the 1983 documentary film Seeing Red.
The Communist Party taught people how to organize. Ruth and a couple of other single mothers started a pre-feminist organization, Mothers Alone Working, in the early 1960s. Their demands for childcare and programs to aid working mothers were echoed a decade later by my generation of feminists.
Ruth was most proud of her work helping to open and manage the first integrated housing development in San Francisco, built with the sponsorship of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Until the end of her life, Ruth continued working for justice and against war and racism. She was right behind me in the Climate Action March in Oakland last year when I turned around and snapped her photo.
She wrote: “I didn’t do anything great in this life. I wasn’t an inspiring teacher, I didn’t cure cancer, I didn’t write a great book or compose beautiful music, I sure didn’t end our wars. But I did participate in the issues and struggles of my time. That gave my life purpose and meaning.”
Ruth Maguire died in December from metastatic breast cancer.
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!
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.