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Path to leadership headlines tradeswomen conference

When women succeed, America succeeds.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker/U.S. Rep (D-CA-11th) Emerita Nancy Pelosi

Boilermaker women bring spirit, breaking through the dreary D.C. drizzle at the TWBN banner parade.

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Thirty-two Boilermaker women and allies were among participants who once again shattered attendance records at the Tradeswomen Build Nations conference Dec. 1-3 in Washington, D.C. More than 3,900 tradeswomen from the United States and Canada attended the conference, which is hosted by North America’s Building Trades Unions.

“Tradeswomen Build Nations has grown exponentially, and we know it will continue to grow,” said NABTU President Sean McGarvey, who made good on his promise to have the Tradeswomen Build Nations logo tattooed on his leg during the event if the conference exceeded attendance expectations. 

“NABTU is proud to host the largest gathering of Building Trades members and tradeswomen… [We’re] committed to continuing to support them and increase opportunities for our sisters in the unionized skilled trades.”

The most recent conference, which was the 13th TWBN gathering, featured a heavy hitting lineup of plenary session speakers. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Emerita/U.S. Rep (D-CA-11th) Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Department of Labor Acting Secretary Julie Su, Stanley Black & Decker executive Maria Ford and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler were among those who addressed attendees.

Pelosi reminded everyone that the TWBN event began as a state-level “Women Build California” conference in 2002.

“This gathering is a powerful voice for shaping our economy, one worker at a time,” she said. “By including and training women in the trades, we’re helping women build good paying, lifelong careers… Not only are we welcoming women into the trades, but we’re helping them to take on leadership roles in their unions as well.”

Pelosi called 2023 the “year of the union worker,” as evidenced by many successes in labor negotiations throughout the United States.

“And I’m particularly proud of the leadership roles women in labor have played, from the picket lines to the bargaining tables, building power for working families,” she said. “Thank you for all that you’re doing to pave new pathways to the middle class in every corner of America… When women succeed, America succeeds… As I look out at you, I see America’s future, and our future is bright.” 

Su, who joined via video message, stressed the importance of connecting women to jobs in the construction trades.

“These good union jobs excluded women for too long,” she said. “Too many women are made to think ‘That’s not for me.’ Too many women—even if they get trained—don’t get the same hours as their male counterparts. Too many women—even when they get the work—have to endure harassment or even violence on the job. To that, we say, ‘Not this time.’”

She said Tradeswomen Build Nations is not just a conference, but a statement of hope. “It’s an aspiration that as good union jobs are created across this great nation, more women should get them.”

Shuler, who has long been a champion of women advancing as labor leaders, talked about the current labor environment and the need for women to help other women achieve leadership.

“We are in an incredible moment in our country right now. Working people are waking up, and they are finding their power after so many years of being taken for granted,” Shuler said. “Everyone wants to be in a union right now. It’s an incredible moment of solidarity—and you are a part of it.”

She went on to talk about the importance of recruiting, organizing and building union leadership to seize on the pro-union moment.

“We need leaders who understand the challenges coming our way,” she said. “We need leaders who reflect the diversity and the future of our workforce. We need leaders who don’t lift up the ladder when they climb up—we need leaders who will actually pull up the next person who’s climbing up that ladder behind them. 

“You are those leaders, and this conference is the place where you hone those leadership skills.” 

Erica Stewart, Boilermakers National Coordinator of Women in the Trades Initiatives, M.O.R.E.-WIF, co-emceed the event with Ironworker Vicky O’Leary. Stewart, who is a member of L-693 (Pascagoula, Mississippi), is on the TWBN committee and has co-emceed for several years with O’Leary. The two are popular for bringing contagious energy to rally the conference crowds.

After the plenary sessions, attendees had a choice of workshops covering issues such as childcare challenges, mentoring programs for women, federal policies, jobsite conflicts and communication, health and safety resources, ally networks, money management, wellness and LGBTQ in the workplace. 

Each union also had the opportunity to meet in caucus to discuss issues specific to their union. In the Boilermakers caucus, the group moved chairs into a circle to inspire camaraderie and promote helpful dialog. Union members chose issues and led the discussions. Key topics included how to find paths to leadership in local lodges and on job sites, how to advocate and speak up for oneself (and other Boilermaker women), forming affinity groups and personal protection equipment.

Boilermaker women shared frustrations and concerns, but also asked questions and gave one another meaningful and practical advice from their own experiences. In discussing paths to leadership and speaking up, all agreed that attending local lodge meetings is vital.

“You have more power than you think you have—because you attend meetings,” Stewart commented.

Several who were active in affinity groups or women’s committees in their local lodges gave advice about best practices for setting up successful groups. They also talked about how the groups benefit them as women—and how they benefit the local lodge in boosting membership. 

“It’s not just about getting women into the trades,” said Jess Bruneau, who is an affinity group leader for her lodge, L-647 (Ramsey, Minnesota). “It’s about keeping them—retaining these smart women who know how to weld.”

As in past years, the annual parade of trades was a highlight of the 2023 TWBN conference. Boilermakers proudly carried local lodge banners, chanting and cheering as they marched the route, representing their union and trade well. Despite dreary, chilly weather, Boilermakers kept the spirit going, inspiring cheers from other trades and spectators. 

“What I want to know,” said L-549 (Pittsburg, California) Boilermaker Angel Greer, “is how can we get more Boilermaker women to attend this event.”

Watch a short recap video of Boilermakers at the 2023 Tradesomen Build Nations conference.