At the first national conference for women in the trades held on April 30 in Oakland, Calif., more than 625 craftswomen gathered to learn how to boost their share of the workforce. They are not content to see women stuck at 2.5% of the craft union workforce, a national average they say they have not exceeded in 30 years. The meeting, co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Dept., included women from the U.S. and Canada.
“The effects of the recession mean a different industry for both men and women,” said Sean McGarvey, 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 expanding degree offerings in labor management, business administration and construction management at the AFL-CIO's National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., and online. Support is growing for the Emerald Cities Collaborative program, which creates 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 then.
“The realization came to me that the situation that I am in my local is not so depressing after all. I have newfound hope for the women in the pipe trades in my area,” says Erica Braxton, a member of plumbers Local 24 in tktkt. “It was uplifting to see so many united in the same cause, and to know there are men in high positions within labor that will not only stand besides tradeswomen, but also stand behind tradeswomen. I know that I must keep going no matter what opposition I may face from men or women in my trade.”
Pat Shiu, the director of the U.S. Labor Dept.'s Office of Federal Contract Compliance, told attendees that a federally mandated good-faith effort to hire women on U.S.-funded construction projects “hasn't worked, and we need to hold people accountable.” She cited a statistic that two million women are the main breadwinners of the family.
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.
Notes Vanessa Casillas, a member of a Chicago area bricklayers’ union local and board member of Chicago Women in the Trades: “We gathered because we want advancement -- for ourselves, for our existing sisters, for our union, for our supporting organizations and non-profits, for future tradeswomen.
“In the midst of the recession I found myself, like so many, unemployed for too long. During my time off I lost strength, confidence, and patience. I relocated to another state to find work and my confidence began to grow along with my muscle. Attending the Women Building the Nation conference recharged the passion I had began to lose. I have a clearer picture of what it is I want to bring back to my community and a good idea of how to go about doing it. This conference helped to reawaken my own empowerment.”