On a dare from her ironworker brother in 1985, 21-year-old Vicki O’Leary took the ironworkers union apprenticeship test. She scored higher than he did and thought the matter was settled. But a Chicago apprenticeship coordinator offered her a job, which led to a 20-year construction trade career.
“I’m not going to pretend it was easy, because it wasn’t,” says O’Leary, who worked on projects from O’Hare International Airport to McCormick Place convention center, always seeking opportunities to learn.
She took an ironworker job for the city of Chicago that led to a role as its environmental health and safety coordinator. “I realized I could make more of a career for myself, and I could make a difference for others,” she says.
After earning degrees in labor studies and operational leadership, O’Leary became the international union’s new general organizer for safety and diversity, enabling rollout of a program called “Be That One Guy” to fight jobsite sexual and other harassment that threatens safety and productivity by enlisting male ironworkers “not afraid to speak up and tell a bully to knock it off,” she says.
O’Leary pushed to include intervention best practices in union safety director training, which will expand to all new union local managers this year. “Vicki is a dynamic individual and once she sets her mind on things, people start taking notice,” says Eric Dean, ironworkers general president, who recruited her to fill the position he created.
O’Leary also is chairwoman of the North American Building Trades Unions Tradeswomen’s Committee, which authored a resolution adopted by the umbrella group of 14 craft unions to promote diversity recruitment and retention.
It has also moved to expand the Women Building Nations annual tradeswomen conference to become a bigger go-to event for education, strategy and bonding—this year in Seattle drawing 2,300 women.
“Vicki started well before the #Me-Too movement to say, ‘I’m going to change the culture of the industry,’ ” says Laura Ceja, a committee member and plumbers union national recruitment and outreach coordinator.