Remembering Robin Johnson

—by Susan Eisenberg

At last May’s Seattle Women in Trades Fair, Vanessa Downing’s mom sat at a table filled with tributes to her daughter, who was killed June 24, 2010. Just a few months short of completing her apprenticeship with Operating Engineers Local 302, Vanessa was hit by a barge crane while welding on the Seattle waterfront.

As everyone was packing up, I was given Vanessa’s welding suit to add to the On Equal Terms installation. I had no idea what I could do. But I took the responsibility seriously, knowing how admired and beloved Vanessa was across many communities –– from Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, to the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council. Even while going through her apprenticeship and moving from being homeless to homeowner, Vanessa remained close to the street community she’d been part of in Seattle’s University District, bringing others into apprenticeships.

When the Michigan State University Museum decided to exhibit On Equal Terms in their Main Gallery –– a large space –– it was an opportunity to expand some of the elements and add two new ones. Prompted by Vanessa’s welding suit, I am creating a tribute to tradeswomen whose deaths were work-related. Those like Vanessa and Kat Engnell of Seattle, who died in workplace accidents; like Carlyal Gittens, a leader in Vancouver’s tradeswomen community who committed suicide; and like Local 7 Ironworker Kathy Leonard of Boston who was murdered.

Please let me know of tradeswomen who should be added, even if you have only a fragment of a story. And please spread the word.

I’ve started going back to people who mentioned a death, to learn names, dates and details. One fragment was of a woman ironworker from Kenosha. I’d been told about her death on a trip to Milwaukee in January, 1999 (January –- I remember crying, my face hurt so much from the cold!). I contacted Marge Wood in Madison with the pieces of information that I’d put into a poem, “Remembering the Fire at Triangle Shirtwaist.” Marge asked the apprenticeship and labor communities in Wisconsin; and ironworker Gayann Wilkinson from Boston joined in. Soon there were eight of us searching.

First responses questioned whether such an incident had ever happened; and then Nancy Hoffman Emons came forward with her name, Robin Johnson; and then newspaper accounts were found. We learned that Robin Johnson, 37, was a pre-apprentice ironworker, with less than a month’s experience, when she was killed in the Kenosha County town of Prairie Creek, Wisconsin, September 24, 1996. She fell from the roof while installing roof decking on a windy day, leaving her husband and two children. As Ken Moore of the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards explained, she was hard to find at first, because she hadn’t been in the trade long enough to have signed Ironworker apprentice papers on file. Back then, the Ironworkers “tried out” a pre-apprentice for a month and then decided whether to formalize the individual’s apprenticeship and grant one month’s credit — a practice no longer allowed.

The Michigan State University Museum is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, so it feels particularly important that the exhibition there honors tradeswomen whose deaths were work-related, and recognizes the impact their deaths had on the tradeswomen community. The pattern of deaths reveals how much efforts to open the construction industry shares in common with other civil rights efforts.

Some of what I’ve stumbled into is harsher and more complicated and more painful than I’d anticipated. I feel almost as though — in a very familiar building — I’ve stumbled into a whole new room I didn’t know existed.

Please add in your memories of tradeswomen we’ve lost. And, if you can, please join me at the On Equal Terms opening reception in East Lansing, MI, February 5, 2012.



  1. I was honored to know Robin Johnson. Even though she was just starting out, she was concerned with her follow employees. Her tragic death happened as she was pushing for workers safety. At the time, workers were not provided safety harnesses. She was not wearing a harness at the time of her death.

    She was a phenomonal woman. She was always a go getter. She was always helping and pushing the best out of everyone. She would be pleased to know, that in some small way, she was part of furthering the advancement of women.


  2. I was a student at a school where Robin was also working as a teachers aide at the time of the accident. Her death was my first experience of having someone I knew die. She had encouraged me to be myself and embrace my individuality as a young person and I will always carry that with me. Her death came as a shock but I wasn’t surprised to hear that she had been standing up for safety in the work place. I hope that her death did something to effect change and I am glad that she is still being remembered.


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