—by Susan Eisenberg
When my son saw the 1970ʼs Department of Labor poster, “Apprenticeship for Women: Thereʼs a Future in It!” he assumed the women in the photo were actors. I assured him they were real tradeswomen. They had that earnest optimism of the late 1970s, confident because the government had their backs and the industry knew it! Recruitment posters were on buses, training programs were funded, monitors walked onto jobsites: the message was sent and heard. Government guidelines in 1978 blueprinted a path that would end the “non-traditional” status of construction occupations and bring women to 25% of the workforce. A reasonable goal, consistent with womenʼs abilities, and with the civil rights values of the country and the labor movement. My son asked where they were now.
I have no idea, but I hope everything worked out well for those six women. That today theyʼre happily retired with good pensions from many satisfying years of employment. That they were well-trained, moved into leadership positions, ran work, welcomed the growing number of women who followed behind. That they were never shunned or harassed or threatened or harmed. That they enjoyed the solidarity and support of coworkers, contractors and unions. That they can point to their accomplishments with pride. That they had a fair chance on equal terms.
The larger picture has been one of intransigence. Instead of the 25% we should have reached years ago, womenʼs workforce participation in construction has been locked in at about 2.5%.
In a 1994 interview with LA ironworker Mary Michels, I asked her how many women she thought would be working in construction. Her response: “I thought there would have been loads of women by this time. A fifth –– even fifteen percent, that would be great. Thereʼs no doubt that the women can do it. Theyʼre not being hired.” I made that quote into one of the On Equal Terms installation banners, as a reminder. We seem to have lost that vision and lowered expectations!
The first national tradeswomenʼs conference in more than a decade will take place April 30 – May 1 in Oakland, California. Making history, the First Women Build the Nation conference has support from the Building and Construction Trades (BCTD) division of the AFL-CIO! Thatʼs terrific!
Iʼm sure the Planning Committee knows that weʼve already got the laundry lists! We did a great job at the First National IBEW Womenʼs Conference in 1997 with our Recommendations for the Full and Fair Inclusion of Women. And I understand rank-and- filers at the 2010 IBEW conference added their own. And, really, the original guidelines in 1978 were pretty extensive!! Itʼs always great to see friends and meet new tradeswomen from across the country. But what would feel good in Oakland would be to rekindle that spark! Find we have real allies in the labor movement, the industry and the government who are serious about finally getting all that laundry done!!! Itʼs time to MOVE THE DECIMAL POINT!
UPDATE!! Meet up 10 am Sat., April 30 in Oakland with Nancy Mason and me for a Move the Decimal Point workshop at the 2011 First Women Building the Nation conference (see link to registration). Download the pdf of the 1997 First IBEW Women’s Conference resolutions, and bring along with accomplishments of your local (any trade) checked off!