Remembering Karen O’Donnell


—by Susan Eisenberg

Karen was in the fourth class of women in Local 103 IBEW/Boston, beginning her apprenticeship in 1981. She worked for eight years in construction, before becoming an electrician for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), a job from which she retired this past summer. I don’t think there was ever an organization or meeting that impacted tradeswomen where you couldn’t find Karen taking notes and speaking up. Her electrical training and deep concern for the environment combined to make her one of the earliest proponents of solar energy in the IBEW.

She was a founding member of the Boston Tradeswomen’s Network and the Massachusetts Tradeswomen’s Association and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).

Karen died Nov 20, 2014, at 60, from brain cancer. During her two-year illness she had an incredible circle of support from her union sisters and brothers in Local 103, at the MBTA, and across the country.

Please feel welcome to add your remembrances and Comments.


from Carol Rosenblatt, Executive Director, CLUW:  It is with a heavy heart that we wish a fond farewell to Karen O’Donnell, a CLUW stalwart and an original and refreshing women’s advocate in the labor movement.

I met Sister O’Donnell shortly after I began to work for the Coalition of Labor Union Women as its Executive Director almost 15 years ago. Karen was an outspoken sister who was unafraid of

addressing issues in which she believed, that were always progressive and frequently centered on the concerns of women in the trades.

She was a member of IBEW and served for many years as a delegate to CLUW’s National Executive Board and was active in its Non-Traditional Jobs committee. She was dependable and responsible, but even after she no longer served in the delegate capacity she would attend as an observer, somehow managing to do so on her own funds, sharing a room when she could find one.

goodbyeShe served as CLUW’s representative on the board of Tradeswomen Now and Tomorrow and brought their issues to CLUW’s attention at our national meetings. When CLUW held its meetings in the Washington DC area Karen would invite her parents to attend as they lived in the area and I had the pleasure to meet them also. She had an aura of ‘flower child” in her attire and always had affixed a stream of buttons in support of various causes (all good in my opinion) too.

At CLUW’s last convention Karen although by this time ill, was present and in the traditional opening of the parade of banners of unions, represented IBEW, with her walker to assist. At that convention she was presented with a special (well-deserved) award recognizing her commitment. Her dedication to CLUW was unwavering, as was her dedication to the labor movement.

Karen, I am glad Kerry Karen and Me3I had the opportunity to know you and CLUW cherishes your memory. Rest in peace, dear sister.

from Sara Driscoll:  Karen could always be counted on to take the side of the least of those among us. She had a keen eye and a warm heart and a delightful laugh. We will miss her and her dedication to the fight for justice and equity.



  1. Karen could always be counted on to take the side of the least of those among us. She had a keen eye and a warm heart and a delightful laugh. We will miss her and her dedication to the fight for justice and equity.


  2. Karen was one of a kind!! I first saw and met Karen many years ago at an International IBEW women’s conference in Washington, DC. I thought ” Who is that little waif of a person bouncing in with a beanie cap, buttons galore and a determined stride?” WOW; what a powerhouse. It has been my pleasure to have known Karen all these years. The Watt Women of Houston have spent several summers and fall with Karen at her home on the Cape getting the ultimate tour of New England, Boston, etc. The challenge was always finding a place to sit in her van on our tours as it would be filled with political notices, posters etc 🙂 Sweet sweet memories!!

    Rest in peace dear Sister


    Sister Janice E. Ruley
    IBEW LU 716-Houston, Texas
    Watt Women of LU 716


  3. I met Karen at my first Women Building the Nation Conference in Sacramento in 2013. In fact, she was probably the first long-time veteran tradeswoman I ever met. She sat down next to me on the first morning of the conference and chatted me up. She was friendly and bold- I was in awe and inspired by her small stature and long accomplishment of becoming a master electrician. Aged and wise, she gave me hope for my future just by being out in the world.

    Rest in power, sister!


  4. Karen was truly “one of a kind” in so many ways… and SO committed to trade unionism, feminism, CLUW. May she be an inspiration to all of us and may we be able to build on her commitment and all that she did in her too short life. May she rest in peace.


    1. I was in class with Karen & Kerry. We supported each other as we learned & grew. She was a stalwart sister through thick & thin, with always a kind, supportive word or idea. She will be sorely missed, but her spirit lives always in our hearts.


  5. Karen, my cousin, was certainly “one of a kind” as mentioned. She was also my hero in so many ways—intelligent, bold, informed, loyal, progressive, brave and generous. I cannot say enough.

    I remember her start in construction and cringed at the thought of sniping comments. She toughed it out though. Then she became a Master Electrician. Rock on! Why let anything stand in the way? As a younger cousin, I stole chops from her. I went to art school and dealt with the odd professor, but I always treated myself as an equal and got on with it. I had work to do. In fact, Karen was so naturally equal, that I assumed all had been resolved and behaved accordingly. I always will.

    Thank you for posting this fine tribute to Karen. Family is often too mired to write it right sometimes. I think you nailed it.


  6. I truly loved my CLUW sister Karen. She was a true and devoted trade union activist, through and through. Her funny laugh and smile were her signature and she was always concerned about issues impacting women and families. Karen – you will be missed. R.I.P.


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