LOS ANGELES—Women in the Building Trades are still the exception, a small minority despite a rich history, decades of slow gains and strong current outreach. The goal of including more women in the opportunity, high wages and lifelong benefits of union construction careers is now motivated by a need to hedge against an aging workforce—especially in the midst of Southern California’s development boom, which will include billions of dollars in projects over the next several decades.
That was the inspiration for the first annual “Women Build LA/OC” conference in June, sponsored by the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.
Where they lack quantity, pioneering Tradeswomen overachieve in quality, rising through the ranks and carving space for themselves and others. At the conference June 22 and 23, these pioneers shared decades of experience and hard-won institutional knowledge with the future generation in a dynamic discourse about the past, present and future of women in a fiercely male-dominated field.
Overall, women make up about 3 percent of the construction workforce, with some local unions as high as 7 or 8 percent and others with one or two female members.
Addressing about 200 attendees over breakfast at LA Trade Tech College, LA/OC Building Trades Executive Secretary Ron Miller offered a visual cue. He pointed to a photo on the cover of the May issue of “Building Trades News,” showing delegates visiting Washington, D.C.: “The Building Trades have a lot of power, but what’s missing from that picture?”
The answer was, female representatives. One woman who knows about that is Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Congresswoman. She gave the conference’s keynote address, and highlighted $120 billion in public construction projects over the next half century, with a chance to increase women’s participation. “That’s our economic stimulus program, and I’m a big believer of making sure there is equity in those jobs,” Solis said. “It isn’t just a one-off situation. What I see is our future, something that has to be expanded upon.”
In a video presentation, Tradeswomen from across the country offered the first rough gems of wisdom—and humor. “It’s a dirty, gritty job…but you can buy the most awesome soaps and perfumes when you get paid,” said one Electrician. “We should be able to have the American dream,” said an Iron Worker. “Hey, look, I’m a woman, you’re a woman. If I can do this, you can do this.”
Kat Norve, a Laborers Local 300 member who is now shop steward of her work site in downtown LA for Metro’s Regional Connector, ditched high heels and an executive assistant job for the “rewarding, empowering” experience of being the only woman out in the tunnel “with the rest of the guys,” and a career that has allowed her to provide a better life for her family. “It’s hard and it’s hot,” she said, advising women interested to “find whatever your niche is and be great at it.”
Women of all ages and positions, from those simply curious to those nearing the end of their apprenticeship programs or looking for routes to leadership, spent the day learning from the constellation of smart and seasoned Tradeswomen.
Vicki O’Leary, journeyman Iron Worker and organizer with the International Association of Ironworkers, started 33 years ago “when there were no women—so it’s pretty exciting to see this,” she said, during a panel on “Thriving and Surviving in Apprenticeship.”
“When women walk on a job site, they assume we don’t know what we’re doing and we have to prove our skills. Go out there and just prove them wrong. Create a name for yourself,” O’Leary said.
The sentiment echoed throughout various panels. “You’re going to have to prove your worth, physically. In male-controlled jobs, you stepped into their world, so you’ve got to perform better. You don’t want to be known as ‘the Woman’ or ‘the Ethnicity’ on the job,” said LA City Inspector Karen Izumi, who started her career as a member of UA Local 709 Sprinkler Fitters.
Darlene Thompson, a welding instructor at LA Trade Tech and speaker on the “Pathways” panel, recalled her first day on the job with UA Local 250: “A guy told me to go get him a bucket of steam. You gotta have calluses on your eardrums.”
“My advice? Don’t ever let them see you cry,” said O’Leary. “Pick your battles.” Operating Engineers Training Trust and Local 12 member Renee Gadberry recommended designating people, not necessarily your boss, for advice in times of adversity.
“Let’s be honest: Racism and sexism are rampant. Homophobia too,” said IBEW Local 11 vice president Jane Templin, during the “Union Leadership: How to Lead and Succeed in Your Union” panel. But, she added, “You have to be the voice of reason. This is a union job, brothers and sisters. You have to come with enough courage to at least be yourself and stand up for what you believe in.”
And while men may in many cases have an advantage of brute strength, panelists highlighted the myriad ways women have created their own paths to success. It requires physically holding your own while thinking beyond the physical domain.
“I don’t think you have to work twice as hard—you just have to work as hard as you can,” Gadberry said. “A lot of women that get into these trades are the kind who think they can do anything. Most of the men are going to be stronger, but they can’t necessarily outthink us.”
Women coming onto a jobsite should resist the habit of allowing men to help them, panelists cautioned. “You can’t allow that to happen. It’s more of a sexuality thing; chivalry doesn’t exist in the field,” Gadberry said, adding, “You don’t want to get all dolled up—the less attention the better. Men don’t wanna work with Barbie.”
O’Leary noted a learned behavior that women can also access. “Men will always say yes they can, even if they don’t know. We need to do that. When people ask you to do something, step up.” While fundamental, pulling your own doesn’t guarantee equality, she said. “You will never, ever, ever be one of them.”
But you don’t need to. Templin and others didn’t get to where they are by trying to outlift men, but by embracing their leadership skills, and developing social strength and presence.
“A lot of men think womanly aspects are weak,” Templin said. “We work smarter, and that gets respected. Women become better foremen, better stewards. They understand the family dynamics. It’s all those womanly aspects that make us better managers.”
Elaine Ocasio, Business Manager of IBEW Local 45, stressed the role of women as trade unionists—an allegiance that has the power to transcend entrenched gender bias and differences. “Our main goal is to marshal solidarity so we have protection against the employer,” she said. “You’re always going to get flack for being a woman, but folks who are real trade unionists understand that solidarity.”
Templin urged women to go to as many meetings as they can, put themselves out there and not shy away from visibility. “It is that involvement that moves you forward and allows you to open more doors, especially for other women. We need to have respect and have each other’s backs. We do not talk about other people, we do not take them down. Instead of talking bad about other women, reach out, try to educate them.”
The brutal reality of hard physical labor is that your body gets worn out, noted Janet Pineda, coordinator for the Painters & Allied Trades District Council Local 36 apprenticeship. “You have to have a plan to get out of the field. But don’t expect to be a leader if you don’t do anything. In a way, it’s a responsibility, you being the only woman. You have to be willing to step up.”
For Diana Limon, training director at the Electrical Training Institute for IBEW Local 11, memories of the physical labor were still fresh. “I remember being exhausted,” she said during the “Pathways” panel. “But I think out in the field, we tend to be the smarter ones, so there’s a good chance you’ll move up. And no matter what degree I have, if I get laid off I can go to the Hall. Knowing I’m a skilled Tradesperson, that’s my comfort. To retire with a pension and with dignity? That’s unheard of now, in our country.”
The panelists were honest about the negatives, but said the positive parts of their Building Trades careers far outweighed them. Anne McMonigle, Executive Director of the LA/OC BCTC Apprenticeship Readiness Fund, said the timing for newcomers was in their favor. “It’s a fantastic time to be interested in a union career, with projects all over Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Also, a larger number of folks are going to be retiring. We need 10,000 new apprentices over the next five years just to maintain our current workforce and we’re very interested in expanding.”
The MC3 curriculum is used in all Building Trades-approved pre-apprenticeship programs, and all apprentices receive several years of schooling. “We are not less than a university; we are our own university,” McMonigle pointed out. “It’s the only free education that exists. And you’ll always be on the pulse of new technology.”
Alexandra Torres Galancid, Executive Director of WINTER (Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles) said that approved pre-apprenticeship boosts success in the Trades. Kat Norve, for example, went through the WINTER program. “We insist you learn the life skills and workforce development skills you need to be successful in the Trades.
“For women in our community to achieve independence, you have to have a job that pays the bills. You can’t have a low-income job and be self-sufficient. There are cases of women that have three jobs to support their families. At that point you’re never home and your teenagers get in trouble.”
Part of winning the projects for all Building Trades members, male and female, is working with elected officials to support all-union developments and Project Labor Agreements.
“The work you do transforms lives and communities,” Anaheim City Councilmember Kris Murray told attendees. “This is an important program to reach out to women and let them know there’s a role for them,” she said, stressing the need for women to access “pathway” jobs to independence and careers.
Ruth Long, 55, a 6th stage apprentice with Painters & Allied Trades DC 36, said she came to join with other women, “see where we’re at and take the bull by the horns moving forward. Because I don’t see a lot of women on the jobsites. The ones I get sent out to, it’s pretty much just me. But I have seen some younger girls.”
Marisol Medina Vierra, 43, an energetic second-year apprentice with UA Local 78 Plumbers, came to the Trades with a bachelor’s in media production and an associate’s degree in sciences. “I have all these degrees and have always done construction on and off,” she said, noting work she did with activist Elvis Summers building “tiny houses” for the homeless off the 110 freeway.
Wanting to learn how to build bathrooms led her to Local 78.
By midday, Vierra was encouraged by the results of dynamic discourse she saw unfolding in real time.
“Honestly I saw lot of lightbulbs go on today. A lot of the girls, I think, felt a sense of security, they felt shielded by the women. You know, sharing your experiences and going on a job site and not being that person that goes in there and no one wants to work with—you always want to be the person everyone wants to be around. I believe in a building a work culture. I always go into the job site in the morning happy.”
U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass touched on obvious parallels in politics. Women make up just 20 percent of Congress, and 24 percent of the State Legislature. “Don’t get mad about it,” she said, imploring more experienced Tradeswomen to mentor the next generation. “I’m honored to be here and I will call on you, so you can help show them the way.” Bass was recently elected as head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Assemblywoman Autumn Burke said the women in construction inspire her to become a “tireless advocate” of the Trades in Sacramento.
“I want to thank you for being a role model for my daughter so that she knows that anything is possible, any job is possible no matter what she wants to do. Jobs that were just for men are not just for men anymore.”
The conference closed with remarks by Maria Elena Durazo, former Executive Secretary Treasurer for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Durazo is now a State Senator. Like many of the women in the room, she was a worker and then a leader in her union.
“Union women know, we have the power when we act together,” Durazo said. She told her audience that she would not be where she is without the support of her sisters. “My sisters were really good students; they loved school,” Durazo said. “For economic reasons they had to drop out to support the family.”
Durazo said she wants to repay the sacrifice. “I had the chance to stay in college and graduate from college because they looked out for me,” Durazo said. “Sisters look out for each other.”