2019 Award of Excellence Winner Vicki O'Leary: Union Leader Fights for Diversity and Respect
In February 2017, Outi Hicks, a 32-year-old union carpenter apprentice and single mother of three, was bludgeoned with a metal pipe by Aaron Lopez, a part-time nonunion worker at a biomass plant construction site in Fresno, Calif. He was still hitting her when workers reached them and pulled him off.
What other site workers or even Hicks’ union colleagues didn’t know was that Lopez, employed by the project scaffolding supplier, had harassed her for days. Hicks died, and Lopez was charged with first-degree murder, but he pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. With treatment since, he was ruled competent for trial, but it took until December 2019 for him to finally appear in court, pleading no-contest to second-degree murder charges in a plea deal with prosecutors. Lopez now is serving a sentence of 15 years to life in a state prison.
“All tradeswomen were shaken to their absolute core the day that happened,” says Vicki L. O’Leary, a 30-plus-year union ironworker veteran who now is the international union’s general organizer for diversity. She is also a high profile advocate for women in the North American Building Trades Unions as it and the industry address challenges in boosting their workforce numbers.
After Hicks’ murder, union women flocked to social media to share their fear and frustration. “Continuing on means being complicit with humiliation, discrimination and abuse. We’re at the mercy of the abusers and I can’t pretend it’s ok anymore,” said one boilermaker who quit construction after a decade of work.
“I realized then that every woman who has worked construction has been, at some time in her career, afraid. This fear isn’t about being injured during the work itself, but for her personal safety,” O'Leary says.
She and others wondered why “there couldn’t be that one guy” who could have prevented such a tragedy. That palpable concern led to a pilot program she conceived—Be That One Guy.
Some jobsite intervention efforts exist in building trade locals or on projects, but this one had strong buy-in from Ironworkers International General President Eric Dean, and now is being rolled out to all 130,000 union members to train those on site to be “upstanders” who can deflect or change the tone of a tough situation.
“We can no longer stand by because we never know when someone could flip just like this guy did on Outi Hicks,” O’Leary says.
O’Leary and Dean also had heard at a conference comments by Bridget Booker, a union ironworker from Peoria, Ill., who had worked while pregnant, hiding her condition under baggy clothes. She miscarried at 16 weeks.
“Bridget stood up and said she had lost her baby by staying in the rod patch one day too long,” says O’Leary. “Eric told me he felt like he’d been sucker punched in the gut.” Similar stories and pleas for guidance from women ironworkers also reached them.
Pregnancy coverage and paid post-delivery maternity leave is now a reality. “We wanted to make sure our members didn’t have to choose between having a family and working,” says O’Leary.
Susan Eisenberg, a former union electrician and now a Brandeis University educator who has chronicled the struggles of construction women in several books, including a 2018 update of her earlier published "We'll Call You If We Need You," notes O’Leary’s “ability to connect grassroots tradeswomen, union leaders and contractors, so they can all be heard and lead together.”
Eisenberg is impressed by the methodical rollout of the two programs “combined with education to bring everyone forward,” and says O’Leary “leads by example, demonstrating that advancing women, advancing unions and advancing the industry are inseparable goals.”
For framing harassment as a safety issue and creating a program that works toward prevention, for pioneering an effort to provide all ironworker women with a key workplace benefit to attract and retain them, and for her push to use the reach and muscle of the union movement to insure workplace quality and career potential for women at a time of critical need, the editors of ENR have chosen Vicki O’Leary to receive its 2019 Award of Excellence.
It didn’t take long for O’Leary and industry leadership to realize the “dangerous domino effect” that jobsite harassment—gender-based or any other—has on an entire project. The harasser is focused on the target, the victim is focused on the harasser, witnesses are uncomfortable and distracted—with fear and safety risk escalating for all.
“If you’re out there and distracted because of some senseless nonsense that goes on, you’re not going to be concentrating well,” says Kevin Hilton, CEO of the ironworkers’ IMPACT labor-management trust. “We should all be treated with respect. You’re going to see this thing take off not just with the ironworkers but with other trades.”
In a January session in Baltimore to educate leaders of ironworker locals on Be That One Guy, O’Leary gets only a few hands raised when she asks if anyone has heard of the program. But she makes her point: “This is not just about women but about the weakest link on every single job.” By session’s end, O’Leary has achieved buy-in, getting the managers to raise their hands and pledge: “I will Be That One Guy who tells a co-worker, foreman, general foreman, etc. to knock it off. It only takes one to do the right thing.”
O’Leary’s push to sustain tradeswomen through focused attention on safety and needed culture change draws praise and support from women in the field.
Twelve-year ironworker Ambra Melendez in New York City says “every woman wants to continue but onsite bad behavior makes it so difficult and there’s an attitude that it is allowed in construction.” Rachelle Hershey, an early maternity program beneficiary as a Wisconsin apprentice in 2017, credits O’Leary as “the one who went to bat for us.” Kathy Dobson, safety director at Alberici Construction, says O’Leary is “really passionate about what she’s doing and communicates it to everyone.”
Industry management also has been quick to realize her critical role in advancing women as a workforce resource for the industry and ensuring the needed return on their union and contractor training investment. The ironworkers estimates the cost of training an apprentice at $32,000 or more—wasted if the person leaves.
Sean McGarvey, building trades president, says O’Leary’s successful programs at the ironworkers’ union made her a natural to lead the expanded mission of the umbrella group’s tradeswomen advocacy committee. “We had a pool of smart dedicated women, but Vicki stood out … as someone who could take that committee to the next level,” he says.
William Brown, chairman emeritus of Ben Hur Construction and IMPACT co-chairman, says O’Leary “is in a really good place to help advance what we’re trying to accomplish … particularly perceptions by owners on how diverse we are.” Associated General Contractors CEO Stephen Sandherr notes that O’Leary has added a new dimension to how “we can attract talented people into the industry.”
That included executing its new diversity strategy and expanding its annual Tradeswomen Build Nations conference—which started out as a California grassroots effort by craft women in 2002—into a bigger go-to event. The 2018 gathering attracted a record 2,300 attendees to Seattle, including some with no union affiliation.
"The incredible success of the [conference] was the distinctly feminine approach to grass roots organizing—allowing, encouraging, enabling any women who wanted to step up and be part of it, to do so, in ways small and large," says Melina Harris, a Seattle union carpenter, longtime tradeswomen activist and co-organizer of the startup events. "This created a feeling of ownership, and a different angle to empowerment." Organizers have also reached out to tradeswomen in Ireland, Australia, the Philippines and elsewhere to participate and to boost their own organizing efforts.
With her father, John Ridgley, a 37-year union ironworker now retired, O'Leary grew up in Chicago and Arkansas—following his work—and draws inspiration from her family’s roots in the craft and the union. But becoming an ironworker herself never crossed her mind until she was propelled by competition with her brother, John, also an ironworker.
While working as a legal secretary after high school, O’Leary listened to her father and brother talk iron at the dinner table. One night her father mentioned that the union had begun accepting women apprentices, and her brother said she could never do the job. Sensing a dare, she applied and passed—beating her brother’s written test score.
That might have been the end of it, but O’Leary attended an orientation, and a few months later an apprenticeship coordinator called with an offer “to go to work tomorrow,” she says. O’Leary’s mother, Mary Ridgley, who remembers her own mother’s struggle to support a family as a young widow, encouraged O’Leary. “I always told her, you have to make it in the world yourself, you can’t depend on some man to make it for you.”
As an apprentice in Local 1, O’Leary’s training took her to many big Chicago projects. “I’m not going to pretend it was easy” being a young woman on a jobsite in 1985, “because it wasn’t,” O’Leary says. But early on, she met and married ironworker Tom O’Leary, who was “that one guy,” sticking up for her on the jobsite, she says. Son Hayden was born in 1992, and O’Leary has treasured being a mom.
Click below for a video of how Vicki O'Leary is pushing to lead industry change:
Drive To Excel
Bridge project assignments led to a city job offer to help maintain its bascule bridges. O’Leary realized that experience in the field alone wasn’t enough for a woman in a male-dominated craft. “I didn’t just want to succeed, I wanted to excel,” O’Leary says. Using apprentice credit, she earned a degree from the National Labor College near Washington, D.C., with a triple major in labor education, labor studies and union leadership.
O’Leary’s studies sparked her vision to improve the workplace for women, says former instructor Jennifer Harrison, now a University of Maryland administrator. “She was strong and forthright about … using personal strength to alter the status quo,” the educator says. O’Leary also earned a master’s in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University in a distance learning program boosted by on-campus intensives such as a stay at a monastery to learn servant leadership.
In all this time, O’Leary kept working. When a manager retired, he recommended O’Leary for his job as Chicago’s environmental health and safety coordinator at the city Dept. of Transportation. “That position took me off the jobsite as an ironworker and put me in a position of authority over them,” she says.
That’s when “I realized I could make more of a career for myself, but I could also make a difference,” she says. “I was in a good local where my gender didn’t necessarily hold me back, but I wasn’t oblivious to what it could be like on a jobsite for a woman or someone who didn’t fit the mold.” Currently, there are about 2,000 women ironworkers in North America, compared with 130,000 men.
O’Leary’s mix of academic, field and management experience impressed leaders at that union, officially the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. She joined the management team in 2015, when Eric Dean realized the union needed a stronger advocate in the diversity role.
Scott Malley, a union executive director, says “it doesn’t take long to recognize she’s worked around a lot of guys and understands what that workplace can be like.” Adds Jeff Norris, the union’s Canadian safety coordinator: “She is very approachable and very open minded.”
O’Leary has never “said no” to an opportunity to learn, and “I still don’t,” she says. After joining the international, she graduated from the National Labor Leadership Institute at Cornell University and Harvard Law School’s Trade Union Program, which prepares next-gen union leaders to face complex economic and political environments.
O’Leary returned to Harvard in February 2019 to co-present—with Bernie Evers, president of the Ironworkers District Council of New England States—highlights of the new policy initiatives. “It’s a story about how you build change in the culture of your union,” says Sharon Block, Harvard program director and former principal U.S. Labor Dept. deputy assistant secretary for policy. “Diversity is an important piece of the future of the labor movement.”
O’Leary is using her new perch to propel action by union leaders at national and local levels, spreading the gospel of preventing harassment and making jobsites receptive to a more diverse workforce.
“You’re always met with skeptics, but it’s my job as a leader and Vicki’s to shape the narrative, so everyone understands it’s the right thing to do,” says Dean. “She’s done a great job in getting us to change the optics of how our union looks at things.” With a breakneck schedule, O’Leary estimates that she is on an airplane every four days, on average.
Sharpies Aren't Enough
At recent speaking events, she has tackled—often bluntly—additional challenges, such as the need for separate portable toilets so women don’t have to use them with “urinals in their faces.” She told owners at a Construction Users Roundtable meeting how women on jobsites have to deal with sexually suggestive graffiti: “We carry a sharpie, and it’s not necessarily for the work we are doing.”
In jobsite toilets, “we see our name with some very specific task we are supposed to be good at,” says O'Leary. If site management doesn’t address the problem, crossing it out with the sharpie is at least an immediate fix, she said.
But jobsite harassment for women will take more than sharpies to counter, with many incidents still not reported or even shared with peers due to guilt and fear of blackballing, retribution and termination. “Women have not put in the complaints and grievances at the rate men have over the years, so we don’t have the data for enough government or industry response,” says activist Harris.
Click on video below to see Vicki O'Leary's ENR Award of Excellence acceptance and her call for others in industry to "Be That One Guy."
Getting Things Done
O'Leary is not the first tradeswomen committee chief for the building trades, but she takes over at a time when changing labor demographics link diversity issues more closely to project completion, workforce resilience and union survival.
She focuses “on the big picture as someone who wants to get things done,” says Lindsay Amundsen, a committee member who is workforce development coordinator for Canada’s building trades.
At a recent meeting, members voiced concern that jobsite harassment should be characterized as “psychological violence” to boost its visibility as a safety issue for both union managers and federal regulators, rather than just seen as a workplace bias issue. “That OSHA won’t do anything on this unless someone is injured or killed seems ridiculous to me,” O’Leary told attendees at a Feb. 20 meeting.
On her committee to-do list is working with the Center for Construction Research and Training, a building trades research group, on a Be That One Guy-style training program for all crafts. She says the committee also continues to advocate for language that each building trades union should adopt into its constitution prohibiting “psychological violence, harassment or intimidation.”
Committee members report seeing changes in their individual unions, despite vastly different cultures and rates of embracing change. “Our board understands they have to listen to apprentices and that we can do better, but real change won’t happen until women are at least 20% of trades. You need that tipping point,” says one committee member.
The boilermakers’ union is the first to adopt anti-harassment language into its constitution. The electrical workers’ union and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union (SMART) are set to vote on similar measures this summer. “Women are stepping out and being active in the trades, but you still have the stereotype. Culture change does not happen overnight,” says Mechelle McNew, business manager for sheet metal workers union Local 464 in Ponca City, Okla., who adds that O'Leary's zeal to "tell it like it is" to male leadership sets a tone for others to do likewise.
Educator Eisenberg says O'Leary's advocacy style is "to acknowledge that we have problems to understand and address, and to give others confidence that looking at problems isn’t airing dirty laundry, but a necessary step in moving forward." Adds the observer: "Because her commitment is longterm, she neither expects a full wish list immediately nor is satisfied with a one-shot photo-op, but prioritizes what will have most impact."
Building the Pipeline
Construction participants see a strong upside in building a pipeline for women on the jobsite and in leadership, noting added skillsets in problem solving. “There are a variety of tasks on a site, and the more diversity, the more strength a contractor has,” says Tarn Goelling, the electrical workers’ union outreach representative.
“Men and women both expect to see a higher level of professionalism on site, and with that should come a safer workplace that is free from harassment," she adds. "Culture shift is happening, but for many, it’s not fast enough.” Goelling adds that “where women sit on bargaining or safety committees, they have a voice.”
To help recruit that next generation of women, the ironworkers union has joined other U.S. groups that offer pre-apprenticeship programs to teach students basic skills that lead to success. The union holds a class specifically for women at its training center in Benicia, Calif. “We have an 85% retention rate with women who have gone through this program,” says O’Leary.
Students get three weeks of hands-on training, taught primarily by experienced female ironworkers, and direct entrance into an apprenticeship when they complete it. So far, more than 100 women have graduated from Benicia, with dozens more poised to join them this month.
Apprentice Desirée Crawford, in the current class, cites female instructors as a key component of its success. “Instead of thinking that I’m getting into the construction business and it’s a man’s world, I see these strong women, and I’m learning that it can be anybody’s world,” she says.
O’Leary’s advocacy also empowers others outside the building trades. Karen Dove, executive director of Seattle pre-apprentice training program ANEW, says women now make up about 20% of area construction apprentices.
Media reports say that some Seattle projects have had up to 28% female craft participation. “We’re moving the needle, it’s incredible, but we won’t change the stigma of women in construction until we have more people like Vicki,” says Dove.
Meanwhile, the impact of Outi Hicks’ murder continues to resonate. At the 2017 tradeswomen conference in Chicago, in a moment of solidarity with the slain carpenters’ apprentice, hundreds of attendees signed an oversized poster of her likeness created by electrical workers' union member Latisha Kindred that is boldly titled “We are Outi Hicks.”
“I don’t know why [Hicks] didn’t say anything,” says Kayla Franklin, a 23-year union carpenter and Hicks friend in Fresno-based Local 713. “She always called me for a ride. She loved her job.”
Meanwhile tradeswomen are gaining confidence that the building trades and Vicki O’Leary are fighting for their safety, their dignity and their opportunities.
With reporting by Pam Radtke Russell and Bruce Buckley