photo courtesy of melina harris
Australian tradeswomen are pushing to grow their ranks, which number only about 5,000 nationally.

Concerned that retirements are cutting into their existing ranks even as they struggle to expand them, women in union craft careers convened in Sacramento last month to show solidarity and trade insights on coping with workplace challenges.

The record turnout of 875 attendees at this year's "Women Building California and the Nation" conference also included union tradeswomen from Australia.

The conference, co-sponwsored by the California State Building and Construction Trades Council as well as North America's Building Trades Unions, included 100 pre-apprentices attending on scholarship from Tradeswomen Inc., the California group that was the first to represent women in non-traditional blue-collar jobs.

Women now make up less than 3% of building-trades crafts nationally. "We're facing a real crisis," said Debra Chaplan, spokeswoman for the California trades' council and a member of Teamsters' union Local 853 in San Leandro. "All those seasoned tradeswomen who came in the late 1970s and early 1980s are retiring soon."

Projected Shortfall

The number of women construction apprentices in California "is not enough to replenish the ranks," said Chaplan. Attendees told the gathering, which included building trades' union executives, about jobsite-related harassment and isolation.

Encouraging women to try crane operations or bricklaying is only the first step, according to Chaplan. "We want them to feel celebrated and valued by their unions and their industry, so they will stay in another year," she said.

Lexer Quamie, senior counsel for a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of labor advocacy groups, encouraged women to share their stories with elected officials.

"We have made steps in the area of equal pay and anti-retaliation and reporting numbers [of women on the job]'" she said. "But we need to do more to provide opportunities for women to make a living wage in construction."

Beth Barton, chair of the non-profit Missouri Women in Trades and a member of carpenters' union Local 1596 in St. Louis, said her career in the trades was the path to raise a family as a single mother.

"I am profoundly impressed by so many powerful, engaged women in one place," she said. Barton urged attendees to create a grassroots network of allies, female and male, to open new opportunities for women craft workers.

Noting similar challenges for tradeswomen in Australia's construction marketplace, Fiona Shewring, founder of national advocacy group Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen (SALT), told attendees that her group's members travel widely to introduce women to the joys of working with tools.

"We are trying to change the attitude of society as a whole," she said.