Women in Trades Fight Occupational Segregation

By: Molly Martin
Tradeswomen Inc.

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 going on five decades now we have been devising strategies to counter isolation and harassment at work and to increase the numbers of women in the unionized construction trades.

Conferences that allow us to meet sisters face-to-face are a powerful means to building community. When 1500 tradeswomen, supporters, advocates and union brothers convened in Chicago on May Day weekend, it was by far the largest gathering of female construction workers in the history of the Tradeswomen Movement. Union tradeswomen of all crafts came together from all over the country and the world to share experiences, strategize, laugh and cry together.

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—old timers greeting old friends, apprentices just starting out in their crafts; journeywomen electricians, ironworkers, bricklayers and many other 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. What started as Women Building California (sponsored since 2002 by the California State Building and Construction Trades Council and Tradeswomen Inc.) has now become Women Building Nations. The Chicago conference was the sixth WBN and the first held outside of California, sponsored this year by North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and Chicago Women in Trades.

The NABTU sponsorship was the result of work by the National Women’s Committee, especially Patti Devlin of the Laborers Union, Debra Chaplan of the California Building Trades, and Carolyn Williams of the IBEW. 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. This year the vast majority of women were sent by their unions to the conference.

Almost all of us have learned our trades in apprenticeship programs and we are glad President Obama is planning to distribute new funding to states for the expansion of the apprenticeship system. But we are concerned that too few women will be able to take advantage of these programs. Federal regulations call for 23 percent of apprentices in the construction industry to be female. This regulation has never been enforced and we are not even close to this figure. Federal regulations call for only 6.9 percent of construction workers on federal jobs to be female and that goal has not been met. The number is closer to two percent. When these regulations went into effect in 1978, regulators acknowledged that such low numbers of women results in isolation of individual women on jobs and a hostile work environment. It’s a recipe for failure. Money for apprenticeship programs must come with a plan to increase the numbers of women in the construction trades.

Some of the organizations that make up our network:

National Taskforce on Tradeswomen’s Issues (tradeswomentaskforce.org)

Tradeswomen Inc. (tradeswomen.org)

Chicago Women in Trades (chicagowomenintrades2.org)

Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. (tradeswomen.net)