A union carpenter by day, Melina Harris has spent her nights as president and champion of Sisters in the Building Trades, propelling it from a local Seattle forum to an international link for tradeswomen seeking to connect and find mentoring and support in their careers.
“After our launch in Seattle, we started getting phone calls from all over the U.S. and then from Canada, England and South Africa,” says Harris. “That’s when we realized there was a real need for this.” Harris’ two decades in the building trades as a member of carpenters’ Local 1797 inspired her advocacy. “I was having a hard time on the job but found that I was handling it damn well compared to so many others.”
Harris pushed for support for electrical line-worker apprentice Jennifer Smith in her fight to gain her journey card in the face of what she claimed was sexual harassment. Smith won journey status and a $250,000 settlement from the local utility board. The board and the electrical workers’ union also agreed to advance opportunities for minorities and women.
Harris’ efforts have helped tradeswomen in the U.K., Australia and South Africa, among other countries, learn about workers’ rights, career paths and mentoring opportunities in their own construction markets. She was instrumental in helping Australian tradeswomen form their first-ever networking group.
Harris now is using her group’s expertise and contacts in local emergency response to develop the Building Trades Disaster Response Project, an initiative in Seattle and beyond to coordinate training efforts between building trades’ members and local, state and federal officials. “She puts herself last,” says Selena Cryer, an ironworkers’ union member in Oklahoma.