L-237 woman welds her way through life

It’s a skill. It’s a craft. It’s an art. 

Martha Bjornberg, Local 237

For over 30-plus years, Martha Bjornberg, L-237, has been a Boilermaker. Her favorite job of all time is welding waterwalls.

Martha Bjornberg started with the Boilermakers as a permit worker back in 1989, when the building trades weren’t all that welcoming to women. She worked twice as hard, doing jobs no one else would do, to prove she belonged in construction. 

At age 17 she was lost and searching, trying to escape an abusive living situation, when a man asked her about her life. And when she was done telling her story, he invited her to stop by the shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia. 

“He told me, ‘Martha, I’m going to give you the tools to take care of yourself. And what you do with it is up to you,”’ Bjornberg recalls. 

He taught her to weld. And she loved the craft from the first spark. She worked for him for three years before leaving the shipyard. She moved to Connecticut around age 20 and did a stint as a nurse’s aide for a few months before hiring on as a permit worker with the Boilermakers. 

On that first job in 1989, she worked with 500 men during a time when intolerance of workplace sexual harassment was rising across American culture.

“It was a new world to me, but it wasn’t scary. The men were rude, but I ignored it and did my job. It didn’t bother me,” Bjornberg says. “I was just having fun with these guys. All I wanted to do was be a worker among workers. I didn’t want to be considered ‘the girl.’” 

She was on the job a few months and kept the harassment at bay by standing up to it. “But one day I was coming down the stairs, and I moved fast, but this one guy caught me on the stairwell.” He had her pinned, but she managed to wiggle away from him, then took off running.  

“I didn’t care. I had a job to do,” she says, noting that she didn’t report him. She just wanted to work and not make waves. 

But word got out and the office called her in for questioning over the incident because management wasn’t allowing any sexual harassment on their worksite. That’s when she discovered the man who’d grabbed her was the general foreman. Deflated, she figured her days on that job were numbered. And they were.

After being laid off, she applied for a job at Electric Boat as a Boilermaker, which only lasted a year because she wanted to pivot into construction. Bjornberg indentured into the apprenticeship at L-237 (East Hartford, Connecticut) in 1991. An occupation in heavy construction wasn’t the easiest career path for a woman, but despite the challenges, she found it to be a rewarding one. 

“Over the years, there was always one man, one angel who would say I’m doing a good job, so don’t quit,” she says. “I knew that if I did my job and did it well, I was going to earn respect for that. It took time, but I did earn respect. I loved the idea of the brotherhood; and in the beginning, there were enough brothers that treated me well that I was able to continue.” 

She says the poor behavior was countered by the good men who would encourage her. That, along with her love of welding, kept her going for two decades. And, after losing her partner, so did alcohol. 

“I was playing a little bit too hard,” Bjornberg says. “I was becoming unemployable with my imbibing. One day I looked in the mirror and told myself I was throwing my life away. I had everything. I had my career. I had certifications off the chart. Alcohol almost killed me. And I just about lost it all.” 

She didn’t lose anything—except the alcohol. She hasn’t had a drink in 10 years, and says her life is better because of it. 

After more than three decades in the union, Bjornberg still enjoys working as a Boilermaker.  “I love the variety, the different projects,” she says. “There’s always something new.”

When IR and L-237 Secretary-Treasurer Chris O’Neill approached Bjornberg about leading the Women Can Weld Apprenticeship Readiness class, she hesitated at first, wondering why they wanted her, and what she had to offer. But she was the only one wondering. Both O’Neill and NEAAC Administrator Jason Dupuis agreed she’d be the perfect teacher.

“She’s fantastic. She can walk the walk because she’s been there before,” says Dupuis.

As the class assembled for the first time, she immediately wanted to empower and mentor the women, to impart what she’d learned throughout her decades working in the trade. 

For Bjornberg, her career in construction has never been about inequality or lack of jobsite bathrooms for women. It’s not been about the catcalls or the random men who hassled her. For her it’s always been about the brotherhood. About the work. The torch. The waterwalls. The joy of craftsmanship. And when she mentors younger women, she’s sharing her love of welding with a new generation of women welders.

“It’s a skill,” she says. “It’s a craft. It’s an art.”