Facing new challenges in an election year, U.S. union tradeswomen attending a second annual conference earlier this month in Sacramento reviewed anti-union measures on ballots across the U.S. and vowed to unite to slow attrition.

The conference, co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept. and the California State Building and Construction Trades Council (SBCTC), attracted women craft workers from 26 states and Canada as well as Namibia, Curacao and Switzerland. With 100 fewer attendees than last year, 520 came to the 11th annual meeting for state tradeswomen.

SBCTC spokeswoman Debra Chaplan, also a member of Teamsters’ union Local 853, says women now make up just 2% of the U.S. construction workforce, down from a peak of around 3% in 2008. Melina Harris, president of Sisters in the Building Trades, a Renton, Wash., activist group, says many tradeswomen are working so infrequently that they are leaving the industry to find more reliable jobs to support their families. “Retention is a big problem,” she says.

With anti-union measures spreading across the country, conference speakers warned against taking the “1%” lightly. Sessions stressing political activism included “Surviving the Economic Downturn,” “Get Out the Vote and Fighting Voter Suppression,” “Making the Law Work for You,” “We are the 99%,” and “The Political Fight in the States: Stopping the War on Workers.” There were also workshops relating to sexual harassment, applying for apprenticeships, navigating union meetings and collective bargaining agreements.

At the Political Fight in the States session, Naomi Walker, director of state government relations for the AFL-CIO, Washington, D.C., presented a long list of proposed laws that would affect the building trades unions, including prevailing wage, Project Labor Agreements, independent contractor status controversies, right to work, voter suppression and public sector collective bargaining rights. Bryan Blum, political director at the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, Sacramento, went over the particulars of a measure on the November ballot in California called the “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” which, although it sounds worthy, is really “an anti-union dues measure and does not affect corporate super PACs and billionaires,” he says.

Finishing up the conference was a forum that discussed what issues tradeswomen should be focused on nationally in the near future. Heading a panel were Jane Oates, assistant secretary of the Employment & Training Administration, U.S. Dept. of Labor, and Warren Whitlock, associate administrator of the Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.

Oates contends that despite all the rules and regulations out there regarding workforce development programs that involve women and minority tradespeople, compliance is hindered by lack of funding for staff and operations.

Whitlock, who joined the DOT just eight months ago, says compliance issues “need big changes, such as metrics being published online so that we can all see if states are meeting their goals.”

So what do tradeswomen need to do to keep federal support? “First,” says Oates, “you need to get unions and the construction sector strengthened, back on their feet before you turn to women and apprentices.” Whitlock says, “Make noise. You’ve got to let people know what you want.”

For a look at additional photos from the conference as well as from conferences past, go to http://www.facebook.com/womenbuildcalifornia.