A record 650 union tradeswomen attending the annual "Women Building California and the Nation" conference earlier this month were urged to take a cue from top Facebook executive Sheryl Sandburg and "lean in" to become leaders at jobsites, union halls and in their communities.

Photo Courtesy of Women Building California and the Nation
Attendees got motivation from AFL-CIO executive Liz Shuler.
Photo Courtesy of Women Building California and the Nation
Craft workers look to network and boost their clout at meeting in California.

The Sacramento, Calif., conference, co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Dept. and the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, brought together women electricians, ironworkers, sheet-metal workers, plumbers, bricklayers and other craft workers from across the state, the U.S. and Canada to show solidarity, network and gain insights to boost their numbers and economic clout.

Women currently make up 3% of workers in the building trades, but the popularity of craft-specific networking sessions for pre-apprentices and journeywomen indicated the pipeline was still flowing. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the newbies to chat with those who really do the work," said Debra Chaplan, state council spokeswoman and a member of Teamsters' union Local 853 in San Leandro, Calif. Chaplan credited the recovering economy in part for the record sponsorship of unions from regions that have been absent in recent years. New jobs are coming back in some places faster than in others, she notes.

The dominant message in the workshops, which encouraged attendees to "make the law work for you" and run for union and political office, was that women, including minority women who are underrepresented in the industry, need to self-nominate and get involved. "The more visible you become, the more you hear, the more changes you can make, and the more you can bring others with you," said Jane Templin, interim president of electrical workers' Local 11 in Pasadena, Calif.

Robbie Hunter, newly elected state building-trades council president, warned that while union interests were successful in killing Proposition 32—the November 2012 initiative in California known as "paycheck protection"—he noted that "our rights are under fire" and urged attendees to get involved.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the umbrella union group's first woman in the role, offered organized labor inspiration. Attendees also were updated on proposed new rules to strengthen the U.S. Labor Dept.'s registered apprenticeship programs and pending legislation to boost investment in non-traditional jobs for women. A session on "where to turn when the paycheck stops" drew many attendees.

Rachel Bryan, community liaison for electrical workers' union Local 595 in Dublin, Calif., noted how she went from jail to a career in construction to her role as the first African-American woman under 35 in her office. "I got into the trades looking for economic freedom. I volunteered at my union meeting, and my business manager saw something in me I didn't know I had," she told attendees.

Similarly, Alise Martiny, Kansas City Building Trades Council business manager, was a third-generation mason who became a concrete finisher despite her father's disapproval of women in the trades. She proved herself on the job, ran for office and surprised her father and herself by winning the role.

Creative use of social media also helped, said Melina Harris, a carpenters' union member and event organizer.