Not content to see themselves locked at 2.5% of the national craft union workforce for the past 30 years, more than 625 tradeswomen gathered in Oakland last weekend to learn how to boost those numbers at the first national conference for women in the trades.

Photo by Vicki Hamlin, Tradeswomen Inc.
Photo by Vicki Hamlin, Tradeswomen Inc.
Sean McGarvey, national building trades� secretary-treasurer

The meeting, co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept., included women craft workers from across the country and Canada. It was also the 10th annual Women Building California conference, which, according to conference organizers, never attracted this large an audience.

“The effects of the recession mean a different industry for both men and women,” said Sean McGarvey, national building trades’ secretary-treasurer, noting more anti-union political rhetoric. “But we still have a lot of work to do.” He said the building trades are developing more pre-apprentice programs and are expanding degree offerings in labor management, business administration and construction management at the AFL-CIO’s National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., many of them online. Support also is growing for the Emerald Cities Collaborative program, which creates inner-city green jobs in 10 urban areas, McGarvey said. “Our goal is 12 months of work for everybody,” he added.

Conference sessions ranged from blueprint reading and social networking to warding off sexual harassment and surviving the downturn. Participants said that efforts to “move the decimal point” from 2.5% to 25% would require attracting more women to apprentice programs and alerting them to construction careers in high school and even before.

Further stoking the fires, Bob Balgenorth, president of the California trades council, says the current attacks on unions are “not unlike the fight for civil and women’s rights.

“With gall, greed and gluttony, the super rich want to destroy workers by destroying unions. It will be starvation or slavery.”

Also appearing was Pat Shiu, director, Office of Federal Compliance Programs, U.S. Dept. of Labor, who notes that the good faith efforts to adhere to the federal construction contracting law (Paycheck Fairness Act), which affects the hiring of women and minorities, “hasn’t worked.”

“We need to hold people accountable,” she says. “We also want pay equality. Women make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Keep in mind that since 2008, two million women are the family’s principal breadwinner because of male unemployment, and without living wages, one in eight women are living in poverty.”

Debra Chaplan, director of special programs for the California Building and Construction Trades Council, said the meeting empowered the tradeswomen. “The attendees are telling me that this breaks them out of isolation and brings them into the rank and file,” she said.