Photo by Mick Hillier, Ironworkers' Local 25, for ENR
Katrina Kudzia, a union ironworker on Detroit's $300-million Cobo Center renovation, focuses on a welding task 50 ft up in constructing the facility's signature atrium.

At 6:45 a.m. in a dingy worker break room in Detroit's massive Cobo Center, Katrina Kudzia starts her transformation into a "bad ass" union ironworker, grabbing her welder's helmet and tucking her scarf-wrapped long hair into a hardhat. It's a routine she has followed for 17 years.

That "Kat" Kudzia has the hard edge to survive in the trades is clear from the stickers on her hardhat and the tattoos on her body, including Rosie the Riveter prominent on her forearm. That she has the skill of a pro and the earned respect of her male peers is equally clear.

Working mostly inside on Cobo's $300-million renovation is a godsend. "I hate being cold," says Kudzia, a member of Ironworkers' union Local 25, Novi, Mich., and veteran of bridge and other outdoor jobs, including in Michigan winters.

The Cobo work, set to complete in 2014, will add and upgrade thousands of sq ft at a downtown facility at the core of beleaguered Detroit's economic revival plan. Kudzia and co-welder Mick Hillier, working for subcontractor C.L. Rieckhoff Co., are perched on a narrow, 50-ft-high platform in Cobo's signature 30,000-sq-ft atrium, set to open this year.

"Katrina is an excellent ironworker and has such an even-tempered approach to dealing with any challenge that it really makes my job much easier," says Stephen Domonkos, superintendent at construction manager Jenkins Construction Inc. "Her skill and creativity is without question or exaggeration some of the best work I've seen."

Kudzia's tenure in iron work is as surprising to her as it is to most of her co-workers. She spent the first decade after high school in jobs ranging from travel agent to Alaska salmon fisher to whitewater rafting guide. In her early 40s, Kudzia began her industry career when returning home to earn off-season money.

Finishing her apprenticeship, she joined her ironworker father, 79-year-old Alois "Al" Kudzia, and other family members in the late 1990s building the Blue Water Bridge, linking northern Michigan and Canada. A 60-year union veteran, the senior Kudzia was, at first, a "reluctant supporter," says his daughter.

However, to reduce the physical stress on her petite 5-ft-tall frame from heavier work, he urged her to hone her welding skills. Kudzia is certified in several specialities and has earned college credits in construction management. "Welding comes naturally to her. She has a steady hand and a good eye," says Kudzia's stepbrother, Scott May, a retired ironworker who now works as a site troubleshooter.

Fellow workers have asked her to seek a union post, but her 58-mile one-way daily commute to her rural Emmett, Mich., home is a deterrent. Even so, Kudzia worries about eroding retirement benefits, which likely will require a longer career, as well as a right-to-work state law passed last year, which she fears could affect worker compensation.

"To say there's no harassment anymore would be an understatement, but it's how you handle yourself," says Kudzia. "Every once in a while, someone at a jobsite has a beef with women on the job. Maybe the job I have is better than theirs because I'm better at it."

Adds Domonkos: "Katrina is an independent, self-sustaining, strong minded, dedicated and talented individual. In my opinion, she doesn't draw value from the legacy of her family ties, she only adds value."