.Rosie’s Redux: Union trades revive as suitable jobs for women

In the iconic image, Rosie the Riveter—a woman in a polka-dot bandana—crooks a muscular arm as her speech balloon says, “We can do it!”

What happened to her and her sisters post-World War II is also familiar. As the GIs came home, most Rosies returned, willingly or not, to kitchens and nurseries. They had served their purpose. Now, it was time for them to get back to women’s work.

In the ’60s and ’70s, as more and more women graduated from college, they entered white-collar, or so-called “pink-collar,” professions. Few considered construction work or plumbing, and even if they did, the building trades were largely closed to women, as well as to anyone who wasn’t a white male.

But the times, as the song goes, are a-changing.

Young women seeking well-paid employment with a future, and who like working with their hands, are discovering a path to that goal as iron workers, electricians, painters and drywall/lathers, through the whole range of unionized building trades. And the unions, for their part, have transitioned into not only “allowing” women into their ranks, but actively recruiting them.

Meg Vasey is the executive director of Oakland-based Tradeswomen, Inc. Founded in 1979, it’s one of the first California organizations dedicated to grassroots recruitment, retention, leadership and development for women in blue-collar skilled crafts.

Vasey’s own journey is unusual. “No one in my family is in the trades,” she said. In 1988, she was in law school. She passed the bar exam. But she had always liked working with her hands and, in a dramatic course change, applied to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 302’s inside wireman apprenticeship program. Unlike many building trades, the IBEW has a long history of welcoming women. In 1897, Local Union 80, the first all-women’s local union, was chartered in Cleveland.

Vasey completed the five-year apprenticeship, went on to become an electrician, and in 2009 took the executive director’s job at Tradeswomen, Inc. She acknowledges the percentage of women in skilled trades jobs is still small. The organization’s website states as much: “Whatever number industry advocates peg as critical mass, California tradeswomen are far from it. In the past 10 years, California women in construction apprenticeships have moved from a low of 1.98% to 2.94%.”

But with many more programs recruiting women, Vasey expects that percentage to keep growing. The so-called “she-cession” that has affected women during the pandemic has been a mixed bag for tradeswomen, she said. “It has kept some women home,” she said, “but at the same time, in construction, women’s participation has held steady and even increased a little.”

Tradeswomen, Inc. offers both training and support for women interested in entering a pantheon of trades as automotive mechanics, boilermakers, bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, elevator constructors, firefighters, insulators & allied workers, ironworkers, laborers, operating engineers, painters, glaziers & drywall finishers, pile drivers, plumbers & pipefitters, roofers, sheetmetal workers and teamsters. “Altogether, there are 29 possible apprenticeships,” Vasey said.

Free workshops and career fairs offer information to potential candidates. Female speakers talk about real-time experiences, helping other women see themselves in trade roles. The “Women in Apprenticeship Training Institute” prepares participants for the rigors of union apprenticeship. Math skills, in some cases advanced math skills, are now part of some jobs. Different unions have different acceptance processes, which candidates must be aware of, Vasey said.

What will happen on the job is also discussed. Harassment is still possible; even inevitable in some situations. “Your foreman is not an HR specialist,” Vasey said. “Unions and contractors are trying to change the job-site culture, but if you’ve already developed techniques for dealing with it, you’ll be much better off.”

Oakland nonprofit Rising Sun Center for Opportunity’s Opportunity Build is open to both men and women. The industry-centered construction-training program is designed to provide a path for both to union apprenticeship through job training, case management and job-placement support.

But Rising Sun’s senior manager, construction and labor relations, is Juanita Douglas, a woman who spent 30 years as a land surveyor, operating engineer and carpenter before “retiring” and taking the job at Rising Sun.

The no-nonsense Douglas said that Rising Sun actively recruits women for Opportunity Build, including visiting women’s shelters and prisons, and connecting with parole and probation officers. “We have had all-women cohorts [groups working through the same curriculum], and many of our classes are at least 50% women,” she said.

The 8am-to-5pm, Monday-through-Friday schedule is demanding. “Mondays and Wednesdays are hands-on training; Tuesdays and Thursdays are math in the afternoon,” Douglas said. In addition, physical and mental health training prepares candidates for real-world jobs. Douglas brings in union and contractor reps, who speak about the demands of the jobs and answer questions. Stipends for participants are small—only $60 a week—but those who complete the program receive work clothing, a set of basic tools and, most importantly, contacts.

During Opportunity Build, participants choose which union they’d like to apprentice with or, in some cases, which contractors they’d like to work for. “They need a foot in the door,” Douglas said. “We can provide that.” The program currently has a 67% placement rate in jobs or further training for its graduates.

Douglas knows firsthand what many of the women she teaches experience. She did not like high school and graduated with a poor GPA. She became a single mother. “Now,” she said, “I ‘retired’ in 2014 with two pensions and Social Security.”

She makes herself available for advice and mentoring to program graduates. One student had three children of her own, and then needed to care for her sister’s three children as well. But she made it through the class, went into HVAC repair work and sent a picture of her first week’s check—for more than $2,000—to Douglas. “Now she has her own truck,” Douglas said.

Another female student, acknowledged to be on the autism spectrum, “is now one of best finish carpenters in the Bay Area,” she said.

Fred Lucero has been the program manager of city-sponsored RichmondBUILD since 2007 and a city employee for 18 years. “In 2006, Richmond experienced 42 homicides in three months,” he said. The program was launched to give Richmond youth an alternative to street and gang life. “The goal was to reduce violence. Nothing stops a bullet like a career,” Lucero said.

Like Rising Sun, RichmondBUILD offers a pre-apprenticeship program, the RichmondBUILD Academy. Also like Rising Sun, the program serves both men and women, but has a substantial number of female participants. “We’ve always actively recruited people, including some who are incarcerated or on parole,” Lucero said. “Some come in wearing ankle monitors.”

Ninety-five percent of participants are minorities, and over 30% have a history with the justice system, according to the RichmondBUILD online information. According to the same source, 80% of program graduates are placed in apprenticeships or jobs.

The academy conducts three 12-week cohorts per year, with 35 students in each. Every day, classes start with basic math. As the cohort progresses, participants move on to more difficult math, “construction math,” as Lucero calls it.

The program offers training in skills needed for extended carpentry, hazardous-waste removal, installing solar energy and energy efficiency, and electrical wiring and theory.

Some women come in knowing which trade they’re most interested in, but some find out while training. “They might find they like the feel of a saw in their hands,” Lucero said.

Although the pandemic has affected the ability of students to tour apprenticeship facilities and for union members and graduates to come back and speak about their experiences, that will resume in full force once it’s safe. “The graduates are happy to speak about how it’s changed their lives,” Lucero said.

He described the experience of one program graduate, a single mother who worked nights at a gas station while training with RichmondBUILD. “She is now a successful member of the drywall/lathers union,” Lucero said.

To some extent, all programs like the ones outlined are taking the place of what used to be called “vocational education” in public schools. According to an article on APMReports.org, “The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the law that first authorized federal funding for vocational education in American schools, explicitly described vocational ed as preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree.”

For much of the 20th century, this actually helped students uninterested in attending college acquire skills for good-paying, union jobs. But it was the male students who primarily benefitted, as there is a huge wage gap between someone trained as a welder, and someone trained as a “cosmetologist.” It was also primarily, if not entirely, boys who enrolled in shop, while girls took home economics.

Then the number of union jobs began to shrink, as companies outsourced overseas.

And, as the APMReports article details, “By the late 1990s, vocational education had a major image problem. Vocational programs had become a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t succeeding in the traditional academic environment. That included a lot of students with behavior problems and a lot of students with learning disabilities.”

Minority students and anyone not considered “college material” were tracked into these programs. Vocational education fell into disrepute and was eliminated in many schools.

A new version of it, however, is making a comeback, minus the race- and gender-biased approach. “Had I known about the opportunities [in the trades], at 18 or 19, I might have gravitated to them,” Lucero said. 

But for those no longer in school—especially women—the nonprofit programs offer a current, accessible avenue to a different life.

There are still obstacles for women entering the trades, Tradeswomen, Inc.’s Vasey said. Unlike the unions, many of which actively solicit female applicants, some contractors continue to resist hiring women. Women with children need reliable, safe childcare. The work, Vasey said, “can be intermittent.”

But most apprenticeships are paid. Once completed, a woman entering a union job qualifies for full benefits, including for family members, and a full pension, along with well-paid and satisfying employment.

And, as Lucero noted, “Construction cannot be outsourced.”

The “Rosie” image of that powerful working woman still resonates, and has taken on new life for Black women, from a New Yorker cover to Tony Rubino’s “Black Lives Matter” poster depicting a Black Rosie to the recovered stories of the real Black Rosies.

A union job is now officially a suitable job for a woman.

For more information, contact tradeswomen.org, risingsunopp.org or RichmondBUILD at 510.621.1780.

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