With just two weeks to go before Nov. 3, the upcoming elections were a key point of focus for the largest U.S. gathering of union tradeswomen convening Oct. 17 for their annual conference.

“This year's conference is convening at a critical time,” said Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions in addressing the Tradeswomen Build Nations 2020 event. “Building trade sisters, please vote and help start a better path forward for the United States of America,” he added. “Your vote and activism matter. Your family and friends' votes and activism matter. We need you.”

Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and an electrical workers' union board member, placed the imperative to vote against the backdrop of the centennial of women earning constitutional voting rights. “White women, that is,” she added, “because we know women of color had to fight another 45 years.”

“Think about those women on whose shoulders we stand," she said. “We have to make sure women vote this fall ... in numbers so large that we are the ones who decide this election.”

Shuler made reference to the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had addressed 2019 conference attendees in a video welcome. “I, for one, got chills when she said in her very quiet and measured tone that women who build are here to stay,” Shuler said. 

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris addressed the audience in a video message. “Fifty years ago, there were almost no women on worksites,” she said. “You all are changing that, and our country is stronger because of you and your leadership.”

Harris went on to describe the plan she and her running mate, presidential candidate Joe Biden, have for construction, which includes investment in what she calls a “historic infrastructure plan creating millions of good paying union jobs” filled by “diverse, well-trained workers who have access to union apprenticeships, including more women and people of color.”

Harris also said they would “fight to make it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain” as well as “ban right to work laws and enforce Davis-Bacon standards” that ensure payment of prevailing wages on federal and federally funded projects.

McGarvey also touted NABTU's new partnership with the American Investment Council, which represents private equity and other infrastructure project private investors, to push work forward and secure union involvement. It was announced last month, with the union leader pointing to the public-private redevelopment of Terminal 1 at JFK Airport as a key example of the program already under way that he wants to expand across the country.

According to McGarvey, the groups aim for $3 billion of “responsible investment” over the next five years, about triple the current level.

Strong Support Networks

With the tradeswoman event held virtually over Zoom, attendees made good use of the chat box.

The very robust participation there was used to particular effect during the introduction and demonstration of the new Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen program, which is “made for tradeswomen, by tradeswomen, to help all of us learn new skills to advocate for ourselves and develop stronger support networks,” said Vicki O'Leary, Ironworkers International union general organizer. “By launching this virtually, we are opening doors to women who might not be able to otherwise have peer support.”

The program is a partnership between LeanIn.Org, founded by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, NABTU and Build Together.

“Lean In has become a global movement and now we want to bring more tradeswomen into our community,” Sandberg told attendees while introducing the program, adding that the partnership allowed them to build a customized Lean In Circles program for tradeswomen. "We've developed content that centers specifically on your experiences,” she said.

The demonstration, led by Laura Ceja, national recruitment and outreach coordinator for the plumbers' and pipefitters' union, dove into those particulars, with participants describing specific experiences in response to prompts such as “your new supervisor says you’re not worth training because mothers don’t last long in the trades.”

“I faced it more pre-motherhood than I do post-motherhood," said Alanna Marklund, a union member in Canada. “When I was an apprentice in the shop, one of the first things one of the higher supervisors said to me was, ‘why are you even here? Why aren't you at home making a family, like why did you even want to get into the trades?’”

But the sharing wasn’t limited to eight tradeswomen in the demo. “My favorite is when I’ve been told, ‘Don’t lift that, you want to be able to have kids at some point, right?’ I didn’t realize we lift with our uterus…” one craftworker wrote in the Zoom chat. “I did my third year of apprenticeship prego ... and turned out while breastfeeding…” added another.

One commenter shared that she “was always on the first layoff list because I took my trade seriously.”

Attendees also got a boost from one male peer who shared via chat that “more men in the trades should hear these stories and understand what our sisters go through and still kick ass and outperform most of the men. You are inspirational.”

The Tradeswoman Circles had been piloted since November, with 140 women participating in St. Louis and Canada. NABTU's Tradeswomen Committee, made up of representatives from all member unions, also has used the circles since the start of 2020. “I can speak from experience that it has been amazing,” O’Leary told ENR. “Our committee is closer and I feel I have gotten to know each and every one of them better.”

Sign-ups are currently open to all interested tradeswomen in the U.S. and Canada, with the official launch of the program set for January. It will be a virtual launch, with about 8-10 tradeswomen assigned to each group, ideally with an even split of 4-5 apprentices and 4-5 journey-level women across all trades.

Groups will have once-monthly structured meetings. Once the groups are set, those who volunteer to moderate each group will receive leadership training from Lean In.