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Tradeswomen gathering breaks attendance records

L-290 BM-ST Deanna Cain cheers as the Boilermakers union is announced.

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Aptly themed “Stronger Together,” the 2022 Tradeswomen Build Nations conference shattered attendance records when over 3,300 tradeswomen and allies participated in the conference Oct. 28-30 in Las Vegas. Participation has climbed steadily since the event began a decade ago, with nearly 2,700 attending the previous most-recent in-person conference, which took place in Minneapolis in 2019 (online conferences were hosted in 2020 and 2021).

“One thing that will never change is that this event is for union tradeswomen; planned and put together by union tradeswomen,” emphasized Ironworkers organizer Vicki O’Leary, who co-emceed the event with Boilermakers National Coordinator of Women in the Trades Initiatives, Erica Stewart. 

To that end, the plenary sessions’ speaker roster was a who’s who of nationally known women leaders, including Las Vegas Raiders President Sandra Douglass Morgan, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau Director Wendy Chun-Hoon; as well as labor leaders, including U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and NABTU President Sean McGarvey.

Walsh said that gender equity and racial justice efforts are having a positive impact. He noted that in October 2022, there were 377,000 women working in construction jobs in the U.S., up from 4.1% to 4.4%.  He emphasized it’s not nearly enough and more progress is needed.

“We know there’s more to do, and we have to do better. We’re going to do more,” he said, noting his commitment to scale up efforts to create pathways for women in the building trades, and all industries. 

He went on to stress the importance of and call upon tradeswomen to demonstrate the opportunities of good, union trades jobs to the next generations of women.

“If you’re a mother, if you’re an aunt, if you’re a sister, and kids in your life see you put your hard hat on and pick your tools up, they feel that pride in you,” he said. “That’s another reason you’re so critical in America now: You’re not only essential workers, you are role models and ambassadors. You’re trailblazers. Go out and use your voice, share your knowledge, stand up proud, kick down doors, and break glass ceilings for the next generation of women who will follow you.”

Shuler noted that timing is ripe for more women to get into union trades jobs: The union approval rating is at a historic high of 71% in the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act is catalyzing a tremendous need for highly skilled labor and the current administration is favorable to labor initiatives.

“We’ve broken through so many barriers, and we’re continuing to fight because it creates pathways for other women to follow,” Shuler said. “This is our moment for all of us to take risks. You are all bad asses. Now everyone wants to be here, because they know that how we really grow an economy is by empowering the women to make it happen.” 

In addition to rallying women and allies to seize the opportunity to join growing union trades careers and ascend to leadership roles, two other topics were key throughout the conference: childcare strategies for working tradeswomen and the importance of forming and participating in affinity groups. 

While childcare has long been a challenge for working parents, it became a more prominent issue, specifically for tradeswomen during the pandemic who were most often called upon as caregivers. And even under the best circumstances, unpredictable work schedules and unusual hours make childcare particularly problematic in the building trades.

Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers President Tim Driscoll addressed the conference outlining a new program created by BAC women that’s rolling out in the union to support maternity and childcare needs among its members.

“We know that many women leave the trades due to childcare issues,” he said. “This is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. The demand (for skilled workers) is reaching record levels, and going forward, every trade will need to reach into all sectors to staff our work.”

Affinity groups, such as women’s committees and women’s caucuses are growing at the local level among unions. Often organized, planned and led by women with the union leadership, groups provide a safe space to raise and address issues specific to tradeswomen. 

In addition to breakout workshops on childcare strategies and affinity groups, other sessions focused on women in union leadership, mental and physical wellness and safety, tradeswomen organizing, strategies for men to be allies to their sisters in the trades, and Lean In Circles for union tradeswomen.

NABTU promoted its Lean In Circles program that was formed in partnership with Lean In in 2020. Lean In Circles are mid-size groups that connect tradeswomen online from a variety of trades to discuss issues, problem solve and generally check in on one another. The groups are free of charge to join, and any tradeswoman who wishes to join a Lean In Circle may sign up at https://leanin.org/circles-for-union-tradeswomen

“When I look out on the crowd, I see the women who bring power and electricity to our communities, who build ships and bridges…who build our skylines in our nations,” Shuler said. “These are life-changing careers. Every one of us shows incredible leadership and perseverance every single day. And I know how exhausting it can be. I know how frustrating it can be.

“Remember: You are not alone. We are in this together.” 

As in past years, a highlight of the conference was a banner parade. Members of each trade union represented at the event marched together in blocks, carrying organizational and local lodge banners and cheering and chanting as the parade snaked onto the Las Vegas strip. The parade was met with high enthusiasm from tourists and other bystanders, many of whom applauded, cheered and shouted pro-union, and pro-women remarks. Boilermakers representing about 10 local lodges participated in the parade.