Boilermaker women finish the solidarity rally during the 2019 Tradeswomen Build Nations conference.

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Women rise strong in the building trades

There’s something special and empowering to be a woman in the trades. We are on the rise, and we are making change.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Schuler

Boilermakers and other union women flood downtown Minneapolis during a rally.

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THE POWER OF women in the trades was palpable at the international Tradeswomen Build Nations conference in Minneapolis October 11-13. With over 2,800 women and industry leaders attending—including nearly 80 Boilermakers—the message was clear: Construction jobs aren’t just for men anymore. Women can do the same jobs men do, and they can excel and thrive while doing them.

Highlights of the conference plenary sessions included inspiration from guest speakers—including a special recorded video message to attendees from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—and informative panels, while dozens of breakout sessions addressed issues and ideas for tradeswomen. Packed-house breakouts tackled engaging and recruiting millennials, surviving and thriving through an apprenticeship, strategies to handle sexual harassment and many other topics.

Tradeswomen stopped traffic in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday when they flooded the streets for a rally to promote women in the trades. The mass of marchers illustrated the explosive growth of the conference.

“We continue to grow every single year,” said Vicki O’Leary, an organizer for the Ironworkers and one of the conference planners. “Soon, they won’t have a venue big enough to house us. But guess what? We can build it!”

North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey called the conference a celebration of trailblazers and a testament to the growth of women in the building trades. “NABTU is committed to empowering current and future tradeswomen as we increase opportunities for and retention rates of women in fulfilling union trade careers.”

Erica Stewart, IR and National Coordinator of Women in the Trades Initiatives for the M.O.R.E. Work Investment Fund, led a Boilermakers’ caucus, where members discussed the need for paid maternity leave for Boilermaker women. Members also discussed workplace harassment and other challenges they face on the job site. Stewart encouraged her Boilermaker sisters to go back to their locals and start a women’s committee to increase visibility and influence in the union.

Caucus discussions also emphasized that while women in the trades are on the rise, adding more women Boilermakers is still a challenge.

“The union needs to show they’re willing to support women,” said Martina Taite from Local 693 (Pascagoula, Mississippi). She said that creating more women’s committees in the locals could help inform women who are considering joining the union about the benefits of a Boilermaker career.

Local 83’s (Kansas City, Missouri) Roni Jenkins added that creating platforms for women to support other women in their locals and on the road could help increase the number of women in the union. “I got into the trades to have a better paying job for me and my family. That’s encouragement enough for me,” she said. But, she admitted, being far from her family when she’s travelling is hard. Forming women’s support groups could alleviate the loneliness, she said.

Amanda Leciejewski, Local 647 (Minneapolis) suggested making sure women have right-sized clothing could also help make women feel more welcome in a workplace largely dominated by men.

Since the times of Rosie the Riveter, women have risen to the challenges to solve problems and claim space in the trades. As more women join the building trades, the face of unions is changing, noted AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Schuler.

“There’s something special and empowering to be a woman in the trades. We are on the rise, and we are making change.”

Form a women’s committee to enact change

AT THEIR CORE, women’s committees can empower women to have a voice in their local lodge, says Erica Stewart, IR and National Coordinator of Women in the Trades Initiatives for the M.O.R.E. Work Investment Fund. Following is a summary of Stewart’s advice to women on forming a local lodge women’s committee.

In working together at the local level, she says women can build support, gain leadership skills and become politically active. An active women’s committee can also organize to bring more women into the local, mentor and support sisters, and find solutions to the unique challenges women encounter while inhabiting a space historically reserved for men. Steward stresses that women’s committees can offer dedicated time and space to support and encourage new women who’ve joined the local and those who’ve been members for decades.

Starting a women’s committee can be as easy as inviting the women in your local to gather for coffee or a drink, then determining what is most important for the committee to tackle. Once you establish interest and discover issues that women in your local would like to address, seeking support from the officers and other members of your local can go a long way toward turning ideas into action.

Pick one or two issues of importance to the majority of women on your committee. Those issues can vary from setting up a mentoring program to supporting women who want to run for a leadership position in the local lodge. Other ideas include social health issues, home- and work-life balance, equal treatment on the job, domestic violence and sexual harassment.