If I Had A Hammer

Jane Latour Mar 30, 2012

Women are part of almost every blue-collar workplace. They’re behind the scenes, alongside the men. They’re installing fiber optics for a telecom company, fixing Con Edison equipment in the “manholes,” behind the stage providing sound and lighting for Broadway shows, and on construction sites around the city. Almost five decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its Title VII provisions for equal employment opportunity, and subsequent struggles through which women won the right to enter any apprentice program for the skilled trades — to become carpenters, electricians, painters and plumbers or join the fire department — they’re on the job. But their numbers are low, and consequently they remain invisible. And that’s a problem.

As long as women make up a statistically insignificant proportion of the blue-collar workforce, they’re all too often viewed as what groundbreaking carpenter Irene Soloway called “the creature with two heads.” As long as they are a tiny minority on any job, harassment and discrimination will continue. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the pioneers challenged stereotypes and broke barriers on the far frontier of feminism. Yet the persistence of discrimination leads directly to problems of recruitment and retention — posing a Catch-22 for women working in skilled blue-collar jobs. For Women’s History Month, I surveyed some of the women working in these jobs and some who paved the way for others. These firsthand reports tell us what improvements have been made and what still needs to change in order to extend the gains of the women’s movement to the working class.

Female firefighters

While the New York City Fire Department has made great strides since the days of litigating, demonstrating and other forms of outright opposition to females in the ranks, there are currently only 28 female firefighters in a force of more than 11,000. The good news is that more than 2,600 women have applied to take the test to become a firefighter, according to Regina Wilson, president of United Women Firefighters.

Firefighter JoAnn Jacobs was among the first group of 40 women to enter the department in 1982, and she has recruited, mentored and trained women in preparation for prior tests. “I think that the presence of women firefighters on TV shows and in commercials makes a difference,” she said. “It’s a visual cue to women. You only need one for a woman to see something that gets her thinking: I can do that, too. They’ve grown up seeing this. Young women are so much more physical and strong. And then their husbands and boyfriends are encouraging them. Men see women doing kick boxing and other things that are outside the conventional female stereotypes. Women have stepped out of the traditional roles and images and these things are all making a difference.”

Then again, stereotypes endure, as Eileen Sullivan, a pioneering tractor-trailer driver, can attest. “This woman cab driver assured me that she was qualified to drive because she was a laid-off tractor-trailer driver. I assured her I would be fine with her driving but was disappointed that she felt the need to point it out — until she mentioned how many women refused to drive with her and would order another cab,” she said.

Tile setter Angela Olszewski offers another perspective — about life inside her former union, Local 7, Bricklayers. “The union’s public relations apparatus regularly exploited my intelligence, aptitude and skills,” Olszewski recalled. “I appeared in union videos, newsletters and performed installation demonstrations. Ironically, at the same time my union appointed me to their Women’s Task Force in 2001, I was also begging my employer, the local, and my apprentice coordinator to be trained in the higher skill sets of my craft. In my former union, women are nothing more than a novelty and are not taken seriously.”

Veronica Session has been a carpenter for 23 years. A member of Local 926 of the New York District Council of Carpenters, she served as a shop steward, ran for citywide union office, volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and is an advocate for tradeswomen. “We have to navigate this industry with an overwhelming burden that a male doesn’t have to contend with,” she said. “Yet our motivation for being there is exactly the same, that is, to earn a living, support our families, and build a better future. We just happen to be female. Research, statistics and common sense tell us the reason for the low number of women working in the industry. The numbers are even lower if you only note the women who are actively working versus those who are just keeping up their union book. The numbers are shameful because of the hostile environment.”

Signs of Hope

Yet there are green shoots and some signs of improvement. In 1985, Elly Spicer joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in New York City. She now serves as the director of the Labor Technical College for the District Council of Carpenters. “Currently, there are 951 male and 130 female apprentices,” she said. “I think there’ve been changes in attitudes toward women — it isn’t such a big deal. What hasn’t changed are the numbers of women coming and staying. I think we could have made a significant difference if the economy hadn’t bottomed out. But this apprentice program took in a significant number of women — from 15 to 18 percent female. But when the economy is bad, opportunities are limited — for men and for women.”

Françoise Jacobsohn, who heads the Equality Works Project for Legal Momentum, said, “There are lots of exciting things going on, along with the same old, same old.” She pointed to the National Task Force on Tradeswomen’s Issues, which came out of last year’s Tradeswomen’s Conference in California. This spring, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs are planning to issue proposals to revise equal opportunity regulations for Registered Apprenticeship programs and federal and federally assisted construction contractors. “Our goal is to unite regional and national expertise and action to update the regulations — and make sure the regulations are implemented and enforced,” Jacobsohn said. “It’s critical that the government have a clear understanding of the challenges women and people of color face in these programs so that appropriate changes can be made to the laws.”

No discussion of good news is complete without noting that New York City is home to three women who are directing apprenticeship programs. In addition to Spicer, Leah Rambo heads up the program for Local 28, Sheet Metal Workers, and Wendy Webb is the co-coordinator of Local 79 Mason Tenders’ program. “Elly Spicer is director of the largest apprenticeship program in the state,” Jacobsohn said. “She also helped co-found one of the most active and successful union women’s committees in the country.”

Women have made enormous strides in the workforce, especially professional women. New York City is backing a $2 billion research campus in partnership with Cornell University on Roosevelt Island. This is great for engineers — including female engineers. Nationally, girls are participating in robotics competitions in large numbers and enrolling in engineering colleges. In upstate New York, the Rochester Institute of Technology has established impressive mentoring programs for females. Meanwhile, New York City’s vocational schools — bastions of gender division that funnel boys into carpentry programs while teaching girls low-paying clerical skills — are being dismantled and de-funded. The fight for equal employment opportunity and good jobs for everyone is far from over.


Jane LaTour is the author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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