SETTING BOUNDARIES: NECESSARY, BUT WHERE?




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—by Susan Eisenberg

At a recent meeting of Massachusetts Tradeswomen, Gretchen Chalmus-Johnson set off a charged discussion when she asked, “Am I a tradeswoman?” –– and kept pressing her question, despite the heaps of praise for her as an individual. Most of the group –– at first –– answered, No. Soul-searching followed. I was deeply impressed by the frankness of comments. And the thoughtfulness in grappling with sensitive and important issues.

Gretchen’s been a Boston Public School custodian for 23 years. When the city tried to privatize custodial work, they organized as Local 1952 of District Council 35 International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. A community and labor activist, Gretchen became vice-chair of the Painters’ women’s committee, joined the On Equal Terms/Boston planning team and the Mass Tradeswomen Steering Committee.

One member argued that, while Gretchen herself clearly belonged in the group she had helped organize, they wouldn’t want 20 women custodians coming to meetings. Another said that Gretchen wasn’t a tradeswoman because Custodian wasn’t a trade: her work didn’t involve the level of skills that being a painter did. Others that Gretchen wasn’t a tradeswoman because she had a permanent job and didn’t have to always worry about losing and finding work.

Good question: What’s a useful way for an organizing group to define tradeswoman? I’m interested how others answer this.

The hierarchy-of-skills issue struck a strong chord for me. As a first-year apprentice electrician in 1978, we were taught that ‘anyone can bang a nail’ (or, paint a wall . . .), that electricians were ‘the professionals of the building trades.’ In a recent discussion with voc-tech students following their visit to see On Equal Terms, young women training in Facilities Maintenance bragged that their program was the best because they got to learn a wide range of skills, but complained that other students looked down on them and called them Trash Collectors.

Massachusetts Tradeswomen chair, Jenaya Nelson, a union construction Laborer for 13 years, argued back that Gretchen’s job duties were parallel to her own, especially since Gretchen operated heavy equipment: floor buffers and snow removal machines. Others made the point that her working conditions were very similar: as one of only about 30 women among more than 300 custodians, Gretchen deals with many of the same discrimination issues as women on construction sites. Others that we recognize women working for the T or the Housing Authority as tradeswomen, so why not in the schools?

By the end, members at the meeting agreed that 4 points clarified that it was both right and useful for the group to define as tradeswomen, women like Gretchen who: 1) belonged to the same set of unions; 2) did roughly the same work; 3) faced similar discrimination; and 4) since the economic goal is for more women to earn a good living, having a permanent job –– rather than disqualifying –– was a positive thing! And something we should fight for more women to have!

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