NOTE: I’m republishing this paper, which I wrote under the direction of the late Dr. Lois Gray — a trailblazer in her own right — as the last of many students of labor she mentored throughout her long life. I am proud to have been chosen by Dr. Gray and the Harry Van Arsdale Memorial Association/IBEW Local 3 to conduct this research as their Harry Van Arsdale Graduate Research Fellow. The research grant I received to write this paper is thus the impetus for the background on the legacy of Van Arsdale, who couldn’t be fully summarized in a single paper, in the introduction.
Van Arsdale is a defining figure in New York City labor history, having founded the New York City Central Labor Council, and played a significant role in beginning to diversity the ranks of the city’s building trades unions as the longtime leader of IBEW Local 3. A career in the trades can and often does serve as a pipeline to a stable middle-class life in an economy defined by precarity for working-class people without a college education. As this research shows, there’s still a long way to go, however, in ensuring women are afforded the same opportunities men on the job site are offered as a result of their coveted union card — their ticket to the middle-class.
Dr. Gray — to whom this paper is dedicated — never got to read the final version, and only a room full of electricians in Queens have heard a summary of what I concluded from the dozens of hours I conducted and the thousands of pages of documents I ingested.
This research was also informed by the work I did at Jobs with Justice on a 2016 report on how the building trades can expand apprenticeship opportunities for women and people of color. I’d also like to thank author Jane Latour and Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner for their insights and friendship long before and well after I completed this research.
I hope sharing it here will lead someone to learn more about the issues working women face, and more importantly, be better equipped to do something about it.
DECONSTRUCTING TRADITION: The struggle and progress of the women building New York City
“…a labor union must go forward or it will slip backward — there is no middle ground.” — Harry Van Arsdale, Jr.
BY KYLE FRIEND | Cornell Worker Institute | October 2018
As New York City’s most powerful labor leader during his lifetime, Harry Van Arsdale, Jr. was a militant advocate for working people, and his actions, driven by his foresight and the nature of his times, changed the landscape of unionism in the city — and the landscape of the city itself — for decades. Van Arsdale, the head of perhaps the most desirable niche in the construction field, Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was born in the midst of an employer lockout in 1905., His father, a Local 3 electrician, and four hundred of his fellow tradesmen were kept from their jobs for nearly four years. That experience, passed down to Harry, Jr., influenced Van Arsdale’s later work as he ascended to the position of business manager in the local at the outset of the New Deal and in the middle of the Great Depression, in 1933.
By the time organizing rights were enshrined and institutionalized with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, known as the Wagner Act, Van Arsdale was already earning the trust and respect of his members: for clearing the local of corruption; for convincing non-union contractors to use better-trained union labor; for ensuring accountability of union leadership by publishing quarterly financial reports decades before the practice became legally mandated in 1959; for negotiating work for his struggling older members; and refusing to collect dues from members whose first contracts were still under negotiation. He also appointed the first woman staffer, Josie Telesco, to local leadership in the 1940s, well before women entered the electrical trade. (Women in Local 3, at that time, were largely excluded from the prestige and pay of construction trades work, and instead worked primarily in lamp and shade manufacturing shops and as elevator operators.)
In 1955, Van Arsdale opened the doors of the union to racial minorities at a time when many labor leaders and their unions were entrenched in racist, discriminatory attitudes towards non-white, non-male workers. He created clubs for African-Americans, the Lewis Howard Latimer Progressive Association, and for Hispanic-Americans, the Santiago Iglesias Educational Society, within the local’s unique organizational structure. “If you want to see what a union should look like,” Van Arsdale would say, “just take the subway.”
Though Van Arsdale was not outspoken in his support for women in the trades until his later years, according to Dr. Lois Gray, a professor emerita at Cornell University and a friend of Van Arsdale, his openness to inclusivity and diversification of the local’s membership opened the door for women to enter the union’s trades divisions in increasing numbers beginning in the late 1970s. Van Arsdale’s racially inclusive mindset, writes Katrina Ablorh, “paved the way for honest and progressive unionism by introducing the route towards inclusivity to other labor organizations — though it was an unpopular thing to do.”
The inclusion of women in non-traditional occupations, especially in the relatively high-paying construction industry, is an issue that has galvanized academic interest since the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of, among other factors, sex. Authors like Jane LaTour, Francine Moccio, Susan Eisenberg, Lois Gray, Maria Figueroa, and Kris Paap have written extensively about the issue; their research and insights serve as valuable resources to understand the nature of the city’s construction industry and the culture of construction work more generally. Construction, specifically in the unionized sector, is “the last blue-collar industry” left in New York City, according to Louis Coletti, the president of the Building Trade Employers’ Association, the largest organization of unionized construction contractors in the city. The fact that the unionized construction trades offer a viable path to the middle-class for working-class women, often without a college degree, makes efforts to incorporate more women into the industry particularly worthy of study. The legacy of the trades discriminating against women, specifically through recruitment processes centered around the historical “friends, brothers, and in-laws” pipeline, as well as harassment and marginalization on job sites, makes examining the existing barriers to women in the industry an equally important task.
Despite a boom in new construction projects in the five boroughs, the shortage of labor in the industry calls for a renewed look at the progress of women in the trades and the roadblocks which still serve to dissuade qualified women from entering and staying in the sector. Issues such as retention, recruitment, harassment, and perceptions of unequal treatment deserve special consideration in determining the current status of women in New York City’s construction industry and in building a brighter future for the “sisters in the brotherhoods.” This research seeks to survey the struggle for representation in the NYC building trades; explain the context in which the struggle became necessary from the perspective of tradeswomen themselves; explore initiatives to recruit and retain tradeswomen to offset an industry-wide labor shortage; and highlight the importance of diversifying the trades across gender lines to build stronger, more representative construction trade unions in the twenty-first century.
PIONEERS AND PROGRESS
1978 was a monumental year for women seeking to begin careers in the unionized construction sector. The administration of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, building on anti-discrimination statutes outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, amended existing regulations concerning the breakdown of work hours on federally-assisted construction projects. 6.9 percent of contractors’ work hours, the new policy held, should be completed by women. (Decades later, as a 2011 study by Susan Moir, Meryl Thomson, and Christa Kelleher notes, women still make up less than half of that target nationally.) Also in 1978, the U.S. Department of Labor updated federal regulations covering apprenticeships to bar discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and/or sex, and to “ensure and maintain a working environment free of harassment, intimidation, and coercion.”
The 1978 changes, which were “extended indefinitely” in 1980, opened the door for a small number of women who dared to enter the building trades in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Some of those “pioneers’” experiences in the New York City construction industry are documented in Francine Moccio’s book Live Wire: Women and Brotherhood in the Electrical Industry, a history of the working women who joined the electrical trade in the early years of the new regulations. The trailblazing tradeswomen who entered the trade “met resistance at every step of the way,” Moccio writes. They faced harassment, intimidation, pornography, marginalization, and sometimes violence from male workers who, at times, made women “scapegoats for collective anger and bitterness” amid a rebounding economy after the recession of the mid-1970s, which hit the construction industry — and its predominantly white and male workforce — especially hard.
The experiences of the first women who entered the industry in the late 1970s and 1980s paint a portrait of what it is like for women to enter the “man’s world” of construction, offering a glimpse into the realities of the job site, which can explain, in part, why the representation of women in the industry has remained stubbornly low. Some of the women who entered the trades in those early years entered not only to create a middle-class future for themselves and their families, but for political motivations as well. Janin Blackwelder, for example, joined the Ironworkers’ Local 580 in the late 1970s, and was “the first woman iron worker, at least in this half of the century, possibly in the nation,” she told author Jane LaTour in December of 1994. Her motivation to start a career in the construction industry was rooted in her desire to improve the situation for working women in the United States, especially in an industry where the pay gap between men and women is far lower than the national average:
I learned to deny it a lot, when guys would ask me, Are you trying to prove a point? And I’d say, No, I’m here for the money, just like everybody else. But no. My biggest point probably had to do with the situation with women in the country, ’cause I didn’t think it was enough that women were breaking ground in terms of running an advertising agency or becoming an attorney, or an executive for some sort of corporation. I felt that things weren’t going to change in this country until blue collar women had the same experiences and opportunities as men…until working class women were being paid what working class men were being paid. And the only way you do that is by going after the same job.
Today, the New York City construction industry employs more than a quarter of a million workers, according to an analysis of U.S. Census surveys by the New York Building Congress (NYBC), an industry association with a mission to provide a forum for the building community — unions, owners, real estate managers, contractors, and others — to advance its shared agenda of development and job creation. Just 7.6 percent of the city’s construction workforce — which includes white-collar professionals like construction managers, architects, and sales staff, as well as the blue-collar workers like plumbers and carpenters who physically construct buildings — are women, roughly numbering 19,020 workers. The proportion of women in the NYC construction industry has, according to estimates by the NYBC, remained stagnant since 2010, though their numbers in absolute terms are rising. Considering the fact that, at least nationally, most of the women who work in the industry occupy white-collar roles, it is assumed that the number of blue-collar women — the main focus of this research — is a significantly lower figure.
A declining pool of skilled workers in the construction industry is one of the major driving forces behind the movement to incorporate more women into the trades., “While we have made real strides towards a more inclusive and diverse workforce,” NYBC President Carlo Scissura told Bisnow in February, “we still have work to do recruiting and mentoring women and minorities for successful careers in design and construction.”
BARRIERS TO RECRUITMENT
Though there is a clear demand for more construction workers, several of the women and men interviewed for this research indicated that the process of recruiting and retaining women is complex, particularly because gendered expectations of what is considered “women’s work” often serve to disincentivize, from an early age, women’s entry into the trades. Other factors influencing a woman’s decision to enter and stay in the trades are varied, including harassment, unequal treatment on the job site, and what author Kris Paap describes as a history of “passive complicity” in the trades.
While not nationally representative, a survey of 219 U.S.-based union and nonunion women working in the industry, conducted in 2013 by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), provides some key insights into how tradeswomen perceive their status in the male-dominated construction industry. Less than two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that they are treated equally in terms of respect on the job, hiring and the allocation of work hours, and job assignments. When it comes to promotions — into supervisory, inspection, and construction management roles — only forty percent of respondents reported that they are “frequently” or “always” treated equally. And, although a majority of the tradeswomen surveyed said that they rarely or never experience sexual harassment at work, a sizable thirty-one percent said sexual harassment “is a constant or frequent experience at work,” and thirty-two percent of tradeswomen of color reported frequent racial discrimination and harassment. Because a whopping seventy-nine percent of the women who responded said that they are the primary wage earner in their household, these issues of unequal treatment and injustice in the workplace are particularly significant, as they have direct consequences on the livelihood of tradeswomen and their families. Importantly, the authors of the report note that the survey only captured responses from women who decided to stay in the trades, failing to account for the views and experiences of women who may have left the trades in pursuit of a more inclusive and less hostile working environment.
Building upon existing research and attempting to fully account for the barriers which impact the recruitment and retention of women in the contemporary New York City building trades, this section will outline several trends that can help explain the lagging participation of women in the construction industry.
Recruitment and gendered notions of work: Many of the tradeswomen interviewed said that gendered notions of work — what is considered a man’s job versus what is considered a woman’s job — plays a major role in the underrepresentation of women in the construction trades. The processes which drive occupational segregation and deter qualified women from seeking a career in the trades begin with early childhood education and span well into high school education. Girls often train in fields that lead to traditionally “female-typed” careers — nursing and teaching, for example — while boys tend to follow an education path that can land them a traditionally “male-typed” career, such as plumbing, carpentry, or electrical work.
Because young girls are not exposed to careers in construction in the same way young boys are, “they have all these preconceptions of what a girl should do,” according to Erin Sullivan, an IBEW Local 3 journeywoman and shop steward. Carol Castallaneta, a Local 3 journeywoman who works as a supervisor at the Jacob Javits Conference Center, agreed: “I think that some women still think that, A, they can’t do it, and B, that it’s a man’s job. I don’t think it’s told to little girls that this is something you can do. It’s not pushed the same way.” Elly Spicer, a retired carpenter, shared the same belief: “We aren’t raised just knowing about the whole construction industry and sector and, you know, dad didn’t take us out to fix the lawnmower.” A recent study published by the American Society of Civil Engineers suggests that the earlier a woman becomes interested in the trades, the more likely she is to continue along that career path later in life.
One of the reasons gendered notions of work persist in the construction industry is its historical recruitment practices. For decades, the most common path into apprentice programs was through “FBI networks” — friends, brothers, and in-laws — which disadvantage women and minorities, as acceptance into the trades often required sponsorship from a member of the unions, which were almost uniformly white and male.
Esta Bigler currently serves as the neutral chairperson of the New York State Apprenticeship and Training Council, a body of labor and management representatives appointed to three-year terms by the Governor to oversee joint labor-management apprentice training programs in the state. Bigler, who also directs the Labor and Employment Law program at Cornell’s ILR School, said that independent oversight of apprentice programs is necessary to avoid “what you had many, many, many years ago”:
We had programs that discriminated against minorities. We had programs that discriminated against women. There was a time in which you had to be related to somebody to get into the apprentice program — so it was father-son, an uncle-cousin, an uncle-nephew. You notice those are all male pronouns. The nepotism didn’t extend to the women in the family; it only extended to the male children in the family. And that gave us, often, a one-sided, white, male apprentice program which meant that the various skilled trades, because these are obviously the feeders to the skilled trades, were then overwhelmingly white and male.
In other words, the demographic makeup of the trades replicated itself time-and-time again, at times through overt discrimination, and at other times through de facto exclusion, due to entry into apprenticeship programs often hinging on access to information about when, where, and how to apply, as well as the training and skills necessary for particular occupations.” The male-dominated culture of construction means that women, being such a small fraction of the industry’s workforce, “may spend just as much energy on doing their job as on breaking through stereotypes about women’s capabilities and gendered work norms.”
Tile setter Angela Olszewski resigned from her Bricklayers’ local in 2010 after facing “constant hostile work environments.” She said that the children of experienced tradespeople — typically men — have an advantage when it comes to being accepted into the rank-and-file, compared to “outsiders” like herself, who have no familial connections with the union. Olszewski explained that, for example, in decades past, her “grandmothers could not join the tile union, and no one would have questioned that. My mother, maybe, hypothetically, could have tried and made a case to join with a great deal of hostility directed towards her, and that’s not even saying she would have been hired and accepted. If she would have been harmed in any way, men AND WOMEN [sic] both would have said something like, ‘well, what did she expect? She was asking for it, taking a man’s job.’” Olszewski emphasized that she can only speak to her experiences in her specific trade between 1999 and 2010, but her experiences illustrate the invisible barriers that some women must surmount to attain a coveted union card after their apprenticeship period concludes — their ticket to a stable middle-class lifestyle in the construction industry.
Graffiti, harassment, and pornography on the job site: A 2014 report by the National Women’s Law Center report, citing research from the U.S. Department of Labor, said that “[eighty-eight] percent of women construction workers experience sexual harassment at work, compared to [twenty-five] percent of women in the general workforce.” KC Wagner, the Director of Workplace Issues at Cornell University’s ILR Metro District Office in Manhattan, frequently conducts six-hour-long diversity and inclusion trainings for IBEW supervisors — trainings which are mandated on an electrical industry-wide basis through a 2016 collective bargaining agreement between Local 3 and the Association of Electrical Contractors. An expert on the causes and consequences of harassment in the workplace, Wagner described sexual harassment in the workplace as a “canary in a mine.” “If it’s happening,” she explained, “other forms of workplace discrimination are happening as well.”
The experiences of seasoned tradeswomen and women apprentices with various forms of harassment on the job site are thus of tremendous importance, as hostile work environments can dissuade women from staying in the industry. Though many of the tradeswomen interviewed for this research indicated that their experiences in their trades have improved substantially over the past two decades, and even more so in recent years, several recalled incidents of harassment, sexist and racist graffiti (especially drawings of male genitalia), and pornography on their job sites. Several cited employer intervention as one of the main driving forces behind the declining prevalence of hostile work environments over time.
“The great thing about having more women on the job — ’cause I know some men didn’t like it — the naked pictures, the Penthouses, those things are all gone,” said plumber Judaline Cassidy. She said that the increased number of women in supervisory roles has prompted the decline of pornographic photos in gang boxes (a large, centralized tool box for use by multiple tradespeople), in shanties, and in bathrooms. “It only changed not because they did that for the women on the job, but because of contractors like Turner and Tishman starting to have more women walking around as project managers and they saw that. So I’d say that is why the change happened.” Although pornography on the job site is largely a thing of the past, she said that the prevalence of sexually- and racially-charged graffiti in workers’ port-o-johns remains a troubling reality of the majority male construction workplace. “The bathroom walls have the most disgusting graffiti. Even if it’s a women’s bathroom, they’ll break the lock and you have to sit there and watch a penis right in your face.”
Elly Spicer, a former director of training for the NYC District Council of Carpenters who retired in 2015, recalled the ubiquity of sexually-charged graffiti when she entered the trades in the mid-1980s: “The graffiti was horrendous. I’ve never seen so many boys fixated on genitalia in my life. Drawing, coloring it in. It was like, ‘really?’” Today, however, Spicer said that graffiti is not as prominent as it used to be. “[I’m] not saying it’s gone,” she continued, “but employers have gotten better about it. You can see some examples where an employer will take a serious no tolerance policy and the guy leaves. If there’s an issue, he’s gone.” And while sexual harassment does still occur, Spicer said that, in her experience, it seems far less common today than in years past: “I don’t think it’s as bad as they want to say it is.”
Sally McKleinfeld, an electrician since 2005, remembered instances of pornography on job sites in years past, but said that seeing “pin-ups” at work is uncommon today. “I’ve always found it kind of laughable. So the situations that I have been in, other people might have felt more threatened by. But, you know, I came here for the big wrenches, the bad language, and the smoke. A lot of that is going away, and that’s fine; it leaves me with a healthier workplace, but it wasn’t going to bother me.” She said, however, that her experience does not necessarily reflect the experiences of other women on construction sites. “I think you’re going to find a real wide spread of mindsets, frankly,” she said.
A history of “passive complicity”: Whether motivated by altruism or by economic realities, it is clear that unions and employers are making strides towards more diverse and inclusive workforces and workplaces that are less hostile to women and people of color. But decades of unions and employers sanctioning what author Kris Paap bluntly calls “pigness” — macho attitudes, sexually-charged remarks, intimidation of outsiders, and a “love-it-or-leave-it” ethos — has prevented women from being completely accepted into the industry en masse. Unions, specifically, are grappling with their history of “passive complicity” by opening their doors to women and people of color in pursuit of a more diverse membership reflective of the city’s — and the nation’s — changing demographic makeup.
Approximately seventy percent of union apprentices in the City of New York today are workers of color and women, according to Gary LaBarbera, president since 2009 of the powerful Building and Trades Council of Greater New York, which represents over 100,000 construction workers in fifteen different unions. It’s a promising statistic, considering that roughly sixty-four percent of apprentices in New York City in 1994 were white. LaBarbera said that, in the short-term, his goal is to boost the number of women in the industry’s unionized workforce to fifteen percent. But he and the tradeswomen interviewed for this research acknowledged that there is still more work to be done to create and maintain a truly representative unionized construction workforce.
“Unions brought this problem on themselves,” Elly Spicer said, “through their non-recruitment, through their racism, and their sexism, and their discrimination. They brought this. They’re remedying it now, and I always say [that] this has nothing to do with altruism. This has to do with they fucked up and they need to clean up what they did, if they want to survive.”
It should be noted that many of the tradeswomen interviewed made a point to emphasize their adoration of their unions for an array of reasons: for allowing them an outlet to pursue social and economic justice, for facilitating upward economic mobility previously thought to be out of their reach, and for negotiating the healthcare benefits which keep them and their families secure. It is “really clear to most women is that we would not have these careers if it weren’t for the union,” Spicer said. “We are appreciative of our unions, we love our unions. They trained us, they pay us really well and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my brother. That would never happen in a non-union setting, or most other sectors of employment. Women are shafted, except in a labor situation where first-years get this, second-years get this, and all journey-levels get this,” she said. “You can pay me more, you just can’t pay me less.”
Though she faced resistance while first attempting to join her local — “go home and do dishes,” she remembers being told by a union official when trying to join her union in the mid-1990s — plumber Judaline Cassidy is deeply appreciative of her union for giving her the opportunity to lead a middle-class lifestyle in the United States after immigrating from Trinidad and Tobago more than two decades ago. “If I was working, which I did, a long time ago, at Lowe’s or at any other job, I’d get less because I’m a black woman,” she said. “But not in the union.” The founder and president of her local union’s women’s committee, the Croton Sisters, Cassidy acknowledged that her identity — as a woman, as a person of color, and as an immigrant with a noticeable accent — impacts others’ preconceptions of her on the job site, if not her paycheck. She believes that her union is doing an adequate job in diversifying its ranks, but she does not seem content with mere adequacy — one of the reasons she is, in her own words, “a great plumber.” “We could all be better at what we do,” she explained. “And if we strive to be better, we’re only making it better for America. A better union, and a more diverse union, equals a better America.”
The issue with complaining: Although unions have official avenues to file complaints about issues in the workplace, tradeswomen — fearing retaliation from their harasser, other coworkers, supervisors, union leadership, and/or their employers — almost always feel it necessary to handle instances of harassment informally, or to ignore it entirely, in order to maintain rapport with others on the job site and to prevent adverse reactions from higher-ups that might impact their livelihoods. As a mere sliver of a male-dominated workforce, the decision to file an official complaint against a coworker or supervisor requires a strategic calculation: “tradeswomen are careful in their consideration of the potential consequences that their interpretations may have for their job and their relations with coworkers.” The 2013 IWPR survey of U.S.-based tradeswomen found that fourteen percent of respondents feared that trying to solve harassment would lead to being negatively labeled by others, and eleven percent said that challenging discriminatory actions would jeopardize their chances of being hired in the future. Formal responses to workplace harassment are “often viewed skeptically by others and are treated as a ‘last resort’ that is justified only by the seriousness of the offense or a lack of alternative ways to respond.”
In a study titled Crossing the Line: How Women in the Building Trades Interpret and Respond to Sexual Conduct at Work, author Amy Dennison examines the perceptions of harassment among tradeswomen in the context of construction culture. “The ability to swear, to tell someone off if you don’t like them, and not to smile were mentioned as positive aspects of the work culture in the building trades,” Dennison writes, drawing on the experiences of tradeswomen in determining what constitutes “crossing the line.” “At other times tradeswomen are troubled by their coworker’s sexual actions but despite believing that their coworkers behaved in problematic ways, tradeswomen still interpreted many such acts as acceptable in this work context.”
Electrician Erin Sullivan, writing in Labor Notes in December 2017, said that:
As a women [sic] in an industry surrounded by men, I have had my share of harassment. … I said, ‘I did speak up to every man who harassed me.’ I am a woman who has no problem speaking up. But my issue came with speaking out. In other words, I took on the harassment on myself. I didn’t want to be labeled as ‘That Girl,’ and I didn’t want to feel less a part, any more then I already did. I also knew that if I spoke up, I would be the one moved — or worse yet, laid off.
Sullivan later added that, before she was promoted to shop steward, where she now has the authority to handle issues of workplace harassment, she tended to ignore harassment directed at her, shielding herself from a potential layoff or other retaliatory measures for speaking out.
Carpenter Elly Spicer said that the process of filing an official grievance, depending on the issue, is more difficult for women to traverse. Until grievance committees — which are tasked with discussing and directing remedies for official complaints — feature more women, she believes grievances filed by men will generally be taken more seriously and given more weight, effectively disincentivizing women from speaking up officially about workplace harassment or other issues. Instead, Spicer, like several of the other tradeswomen interviewed for this research, often resorted to informal complaints, sometimes confronting harassers and unequal treatment on the job site directly. “I got treated that way,” she said, “but I just didn’t eat shit.”
Describing her experience in the early years of her career as a union plumber, Judaline Cassidy said that she was timid, unconfident, and unsure of how to deal with harassment at work. “I was sexually harassed a couple times — a lot of times — and didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It’s like, if you speak up, you might lose your job,” and if you don’t, “it might continue.” She added that she’s experienced less harassment as the years passed, but much of the change had to do with how she carried herself on the job site, becoming more confident in herself as she gained experience. “The more I started working in construction, I said nothing is more empowering than a woman than being able to build stuff with your hands,” she said. “It gives you like a self confidence like I walk around like I’m a superhero. There’s not a lot of people who do this. I’m a superhero. So I realized when I started carrying myself differently, it (harassment) wasn’t happening.” She said, however, that “people still say dumb shit, [but] that’s the nature of people.”
As a black woman, Cassidy is acutely aware of the fact that she could be perceived as the stereotypical “angry black woman” — a trope which renders the experiences and opinions of black women “both invisible and mute” by portraying them as “uniquely and irrationally angry” — for simply sticking up for herself. The main strategy Cassidy has adopted to confront harassers on the job site, while avoiding being labeled as the stereotype, is to flip the roles of the harasser and the harassed, using humor to deflect harassment — for better or for worse. “I learned to flip the roles,” she said, “because you can’t always be angry, because that’s when they win.” She said that, even after decades of work as a skilled plumber, “I can still go on a job today and somebody will assume because I’m a woman I don’t know what I’m doing, but, hey, that’s their insecurities.” Cassidy takes great pride in her “snapbacks,” and her friends have jokingly encouraged her to teach a class on the use of humor as a deflection strategy. She has found that these “snapbacks” serve as a useful tool to confront problematic coworkers without resorting to the use of official channels.
Cassidy notices that her race and gender impact how others respond to her suggestions or complaints, calling the difference something that is “not unique to construction,” but an everyday reality for black women in the U.S. She said that tradesmen will “curb their language” when talking with white tradeswomen — a privilege she is not afforded as a black woman. A white tradeswoman “can complain and be able to sue and maybe still keep her job,” she said. “People don’t want to believe that, but it’s true. It’s so different for us, the rules are so different for us.”
BARRIERS TO RETENTION
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that, by 2024, 800,000 more workers will be needed to complete anticipated construction and mitigate the industry’s labor shortage. As older workers retire and potential young recruits often prioritize college education over learning a trade, ensuring the retention of qualified workers should be a top priority for the trades if they hope to safeguard against the encroachment of non-union construction in the city and guarantee that they have the workforce required to build upcoming projects. One way for the trades to bolster their position is to maintain and expand its female workforce by combatting the barriers which can prompt women to leave the trades during or after completing their apprenticeships.
Erik Antokal, the vice president of programs at Nontraditional Employment for Women — a pre-apprenticeship program designed to recruit and retain women in the NYC construction industry — said that seventy-five percent of the 350–400 women who annually enroll in the program graduate. The other twenty-five percent, he said, drop out of the program before going on to become an apprentice, for a variety of reasons. “It might be that they have trouble showing up on time. It might be that they have trouble juggling the childcare,” he said. NEW tracks retention of its graduates by following up with them around the one-year mark of their selected apprenticeship program. Antokal said retention rates at that point are typically a useful indicator of one’s willingness to stay in their trade beyond their apprenticeship program. At the one year mark, Antokal said, NEW’s data shows that approximately sixty to seventy percent of graduates are still in their apprentice programs, though the percentages vary somewhat by trade.
In addition to child care difficulties and time constraints for working mothers, there are several other factors which can influence a woman’s decision to stay in the trades. This section will briefly expand on some components which help to shape the culture of construction work, namely visibility of women in the trades and provisions that account for women’s unique health-related issues.
Visibility: One of the most often-cited factors which can lead to increased retention rates is the representation and visibility of women in leadership positions. “If you see it,” explained Judaline Cassidy, “you can be it.” Elly Spicer, who herself has taken on various leadership positions throughout the years, agreed: When more women are promoted into leadership positions, “you’re going to see a greater consistency of women developing long-term careers and retiring with pensions that can support them.” Gary LaBarbera, president of the NYCBTC, said he’s noticed over the past decade an increasing number of women in business agent and training roles, and expects the percentage of women in leadership to increase as the trades continue to diversify their membership. “You’re starting to see that change now,” he said, “but it’s an evolution.”
Carol Castallaneta explained the psychological impact of women in leadership positions, for both men and women on the job site:
For one, it lets other women see that they can do it. Two, I think for the men who aren’t so sure if women can do it, it reinforces that we can. I think there are some men that don’t think one way or another, you know? But I think for the guys who are … maybe hesitant, I think it gives them the reassurance, like “wow, she can do it.”
Pregnancy and child care: Another factor influencing the retention of tradeswomen is the fact that many women in the trades occupy dual roles as both familial breadwinners and as the primary caretakers of their children. Because work in the trades typically begins in the early morning, usually around 7 A.M., finding adequate child care accomodations can be difficult. Carol Castellaneta described finding child care as the “hardest” logistical challenge she faced in the trades: “A regular daycare doesn’t open until seven. I was bringing my daughter to my friend, for my friend to bring my daughter to daycare. And it’s crazy expensive.”
Having a child while working can also prevent women from rising through the ranks. The transient nature of construction work means that bringing in new workers mid-project to offset a tradeswoman’s maternity leave can cause disruptions and confusion on a project. If a supervisor learns that a tradeswoman is trying to start a family, Castallaneta theorized, “Is that going to, in the back of [their] head, say, ‘I shouldn’t make her a foreman, because how long am I going to have her for? Is she going to come back?’ … And as a woman,” she continued, “if I had a woman who was thinking those things, maybe I would think those same things, you know? You’re trying to look out for the best of the job, too.”
Some building trades unions, notably the Iron Workers (IW), have recognized the unique challenges confronting tradeswomen during their pregnancy and as new mothers. “The challenges of physical work associated with the ironworking trade create unique health challenges that can jeopardize a pregnancy,” reads an official press release. That’s why, in 2017, the union announced the establishment of a paid maternity leave benefit for its female members, which was described by the union as “virtually unheard of in the building trades.” It provides up to six months of pre-delivery benefits for ironworker tradeswomen, in addition to six weeks of paid leave after the child’s birth, plus an extra two weeks for Cesarean section deliveries. Only two percent of the union’s 130,000 North American members are women, but union leaders involved in the effort see paid maternity leave as an important step to increase the retention and recruitment of tradeswomen at a crucial time. “The whole world is suffering the baby boomer retirement tsunami,” IW president Eric Dean told the Washington Post. “All the construction trades are in competition for capable people. Wouldn’t it be a distinct advantage for us to be the first?”
SLOWLY BUT SURELY: TRADESWOMEN INITIATIVES
Despite the barriers which can dissuade qualified women from seeking a career in the construction industry, several organizations, programs, and initiatives in the City of New York are dedicated to improving the representation of women in the trades. Organizations like Nontraditional Employment for Women and Construction Skills serve as “direct entry” pre-apprenticeship programs, funneling women — primarily of color — into careers in the industry. Newer programs, such as Tools and Tiaras, seek to expose girls at an early age to careers in the trades. This section will briefly outline efforts to recruit more women into the city’s construction industry.
Pre-apprenticeship programs: Perhaps the most prominent organization devoted to helping women enter the New York City construction industry is Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW). Founded in 1978, NEW has offered pre-apprenticeship training programs to thousands of women seeking employment in the construction industry and related fields, serving as one of the primary pipelines for women entering unionized apprenticeship programs in the city — at no cost to them. The seven-to-eight-week-long course teaches women — approximately eighty-two percent of whom are women of color — the basics of the construction industry. Tradeswomen who volunteer as teachers at NEW instruct students on a range of relevant subjects to prepare them for a career in the unionized construction industry: trades math, construction techniques, physical training, workplace norms and expectations, and occupational safety, while also providing enrollees a network of experienced tradeswomen to support them throughout their journey into the trades.
Funded primarily through private industry donations, non-profit foundations, and federal grants, NEW and its full- and part-time staff of more than thirty prepares between 350 and 400 women per year, on average, for a career in the trades. More than half of the women who enter the program end up in a union apprenticeship program, according to Erik Antokal, the Assistant Vice President of Programs at NEW, while a smaller percentage move on to jobs with organizations like the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Con Edison. The organization has what is called “direct entry status” into apprentice programs, which allows graduates of the program to bypass bureaucratic barriers that might otherwise prevent women from entering the trades. Women entering into NEW’s pre-apprenticeship program are typically in their late twenties or early thirties, Antokal said, and many arrived at its headquarters on West 20th Street out of a desire to provide a better life for their families or to find a career in a better-paying industry. The process of recruiting women into the NYC construction industry was made easier when, in 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYC Building and Trades Council signed an agreement to reserve ten percent of the city’s apprenticeship openings for women, largely through a partnership with NEW, leading to a dramatic uptick in inquiries from women seeking to enter the program.
Though its focus is not solely on recruiting women into the trades, as is NEW’s, the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills is focused on recruiting and training the next generation of tradespeople from Career and Technical Education (CTE) high schools, in addition to their adult programs. Ten percent of its adult pre-apprentice program and seven percent of its youth pre-apprentice program are women, according to Nicole Bertrán, the program’s executive vice president who worked at NEW for more than half a decade. Eighty-nine percent of the roughly 130 enrollees this year are people of color. The value of these direct entry programs, said Bertrán, is to “remedy the history of discrimination” of women and people of color in the construction industry. The industry “used to be almost entirely white male-dominated,” she said, “but it’s changed significantly,” pointing to statistics showing the increased number of women and people of color, specifically in the last two decades.
One of the problems both organizations share is a massive influx of people who want to enroll in their programs — far more than they can reasonably accommodate. For every eight women who show up to NEW’s information sessions, Antokal said, the organization has the capacity to accept one woman. Bertrán presented a long, double-sided list of applicants, many of whom Construction Skills won’t be able to train, due to limited staffing capacity and because the organization, much like NEW, wants to ensure that enrollees are not trained and later unable to enter a unionized apprentice program. “I’m not going to train people just to train them, and have them sitting there,” she said. “That’s how you lose people, make them angry. That’s how you frustrate people.”
Tools and Tiaras: Putting tools in their hands, Judaline Cassidy said, is one of the most effective ways to get young girls interested in a career in the trades. That’s why, in June 2017, she established Tools and Tiaras, Inc. — a not-for-profit program dedicated to exposing young girls to the potential for a career in the lucrative construction industry. Funded entirely through her own plumbing paychecks and small donations hovering around twenty dollars, Cassidy founded T&T to bring visibility to women in the trades, and to teach girls that “jobs don’t have genders.”
Once a month, tradeswomen from different trades volunteer to teach a group of ten-or-so girls about working in the construction industry in various spaces throughout the city. T&T relies upon a network of different nonprofits to house the program, as it does not yet have a dedicated space to call its own. Despite the inconvenience associated with a lack of a dedicated facility, Cassidy is flooded with requests to attend her program, typically from parents who simply searched “girls in trades” online, she said. The children who attend are given the opportunity to try their hand at carpentry, welding, plumbing, and an array of other trades, all to serve her purpose of educating girls about the possibility of careers in non-traditional occupations.
In late July 2018, Cassidy hosted her first-ever week-long summer camp for young girls. Focusing on hands-on training and teaching about the history of the trades, Cassidy and her team of volunteer tradeswomen are hoping to narrow the gap between young boys and girls in terms of exposure to the trades. Her union changed her life, she said, so she feels compelled to ensure that young girls also develop an appreciation for the labor movement. “We ask ’em if they know what a union is, and we tell ’em. We show them pictures of kids — mildly traumatic, so I hope they’re okay — of little kids working in the cotton fields, sewing, in the mines,” she said. “That could’ve been you if there wasn’t any unions. And they’re like ‘oh! I love unions!’”
Cassidy also uses the week-long camp and her monthly program to expose mothers to the trade. “They bring their daughter, and when we them what we make, you should see their faces,” she said. “I always make sure I tell them I’m an immigrant, four-foot-eleven and seven-eighths inches, and I make more than $100,000 a year. And I have no college debt.” Reception to her program has been overwhelmingly positive, she said, recalling the letters, Facebook posts, and emails she’s received from the parents of girls who attended her program. “We had one little girl tell her mom, I think she was eleven, ‘now I know I have so many more options.’ We just wanted to cry — that’s what we do it for.”
Diversity and inclusion training: One of the ways the subject of gender diversity has been incorporated into the trades is through diversity and inclusion trainings. IBEW Local 3, for example, negotiated a contract in 2016 which requires new supervisors to take a six-hour diversity training course within a reasonable timeframe in order to be eligible to supervise jobs. The trainings, conducted at times in partnership with Cornell’s ILR School, are an important first step toward the creation and maintenance of a more inclusive industry, said instructor KC Wagner. At a recent training in White Plains, New York, Wagner discussed with about twenty male supervisors issues like toxic masculinity and expectations of allyship — which were, at first, viewed skeptically by a few of the attendees. While she recognizes the value of trainings like Local 3’s and initiatives like the Iron Workers’ “Be That One Guy” campaign, she said that they do not go far enough to change the entirety of the industry:
It’s not enough just to train the union. It’s great that there was a collective bargaining agreement, but I want to train the industry. If there’s one union that’s been trained and other trades that haven’t been trained, or if the employer says ‘don’t send me a girl because I don’t think they can do the work,’ the union is sometimes between a rock and a hard place, although they have an obligation to provide equal opportunity for everyone and and push back, but the employer also has to be trained.
Issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, she added, must be incorporated into the trades unions as a “union value,” in the same way that refusing to cross a picket line is a union value. Proactively identifying and combating harassment can help lead to a broader culture shift that Wagner says can create a more inclusive working environment, which can be tied to various other union priorities like expanding market share, boosting productivity, increasing retention rates, and, perhaps most importantly, improving construction unions’ ability to organize new members as workers from the baby boomer generation begin to retire in droves. Replenishing the industry’s aging workforce was a challenge that was also emphasized by Louis Coletti, who represents more than 1,000 of the city’s largest unionized employers of construction workers, which generated a combined revenue of more than $40 billion in 2017.,
Internal women’s committees: Internal union women’s groups were cited by many of the tradeswomen as effective support networks which provide an array of resources to bolster women’s participation in the trades, promote visibility of tradeswomen, mentor younger members, and assist tradeswomen when they seek promotions. The work of the IBEW’s Amber Light Society, the Plumbers’ Croton Sisters, and the Carpenters’ Women’s Committee in New York City provide a window into the role of women’s committees in supporting tradeswomen within their unions.
When Carol Castallaneta first joined her union, IBEW Local 3, she did not want to join the women’s committee because she “didn’t want to be a part of the ‘Angry Women Haters Club,’” as it was known by many of the men in her local. The committee had a “stigma of ‘it’s a bunch of people that nobody likes [and] all they do is complain,’” she said. During a meeting of apprentices, she recalled the then-president of the women’s committee, which was not yet an official Local 3 club, yelling at the apprentice women in an attempt to recruit them to the organization. She was turned off by that — “you’re here to recruit people to come down to your meetings and accept women, and that’s how you’re going to talk to them?” — but was eventually persuaded by a male colleague to attend one of the meetings.
After attending her first meeting, she realized that it wasn’t a group of angry women hellbent on hating men, but a place to bond with her union sisters at a designated place and time each month, where they were free to discuss the issues that affect women both in the construction industry and in broader society — ranging from the importance of annual mammograms to coordinating strategy during contract negotiations. In 1997, after applying pressure to local leadership, the women’s committee became an official club of Local 3, named the Amber Light Society (ALS). And, nearly two decades later, in 2010, Castallaneta, who was apprehensive about joining the committee years before, was elected president of the ALS. “One of the first things I said,” she recalled, “is [that] it’s not designed to be a place for everybody to come and bitch.” The main purpose of the club, she said, is to inform the women about union affairs and serve as a mutual aid society. “It gives them a place to bond with other sisters, you know, we kind of watch each other’s children grow up,” she said. “And it gives you a place for you to meet other people in the same situation … you know who to call if you’re stuck and don’t know what to do.”
The ALS has several initiatives it runs, ranging from scholarship programs, to breast cancer awareness fundraising, to resume programs. The resume program, which began under its current president, Michele Betancourt-Maldonado, is one that serves as an embodiment of the “mutual aid” ethos of the club. Sally McKleinfeld, the club’s recording secretary, spearheaded the creation of the program, known as the “Rising Tide Resume Project.” To become a supervisor in construction, she said, a resume is required — something many rank-and-file tradeswomen have never developed or continued updating after beginning their careers in the trades. Helping her colleagues write resumes, she said, helps to “bring everybody up with them.”
The Croton Sisters, the Plumbers union women’s committee, was founded by Judaline Cassidy after a long fight with union leadership to recognize the the organization as official. “They felt like, back then, that if we have a women’s committee, we look like we’re trying to separate ourselves from the men,” she said. After attending the 2006 Women Build Nations conference — a conference for tradeswomen sponsored by Chicago Women in the Trades (CWIT) and the AFL-CIO-affiliated North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU), where she met women foremen and local union presidents — Cassidy was inspired to begin pressuring her union to allow the formation of an official women’s committee. The tradeswomen in her local met in coffee shops and public libraries in an unofficial capacity for nearly a decade until, in March 2016, the union began allowing the group to meet in the union hall once a month. She said that, despite the struggle to have the committee recognized by union leadership, its eventual endorsement of the organization symbolizes the changing culture in the trades in terms of diversity and inclusion.
Though the committee now has more than twenty members, Cassidy said she has trouble recruiting the eighty-something tradeswomen and apprentices in her local to join. “Some of them still have the stigma,” she said, “and they believe, like, that ‘if I’m with the girls, I’m against the guys,’ not knowing that part of the retention problem is women don’t have a circle for those difficult days.” The goals of the committee, she said, are broad. It fundraises for its members to attend international tradeswomen conferences, provides a system for the mentorship of apprentice women, and serves as a support network for tradeswomen by furnishing a forum to discuss a variety of issues on and off the job. “A lot of [tradeswomen] leave, because they get depression on the job, the sexual harassment, not being able to learn the craft because the men are not teaching them and they drop out,” she said. “So that’s the purpose of the women’s committee — we try to inspire each other.”
Elly Spicer helped to found the Carpenters’ Women’s Committee in 2002, after she accepted a staff position with her union. Though there were numerous iterations of women’s committees in the union before then, she said, most were established to antagonize union leadership. “They were going to fight,” she said. But “when you’ve got no power, you’ve got nothing to fight with, so that’s not really a position I thought would be useful.” As a union staffer, she recalled, she approached another member of leadership who she had worked with before, and said “I want to do this, and I think we can strengthen the union, we can strengthen our public relations. We can do a lot of things when we show that we’re a diverse entity,” she remembered. “And he said ‘go ahead.’”
The mission of the committee, Spicer said, is to support tradeswomen and expand the opportunities available for women in leadership and in the trades more generally. At times, she said, the committee had as many as seventy-five tradeswomen at their meetings, but today, the number of attendees has dwindled. “I think that there’s been a lack of organizing and focusing on issues that women feel like they’re going to get something out of,” she said. During her tenure as director of the union’s apprenticeship program, from 2012 to 2015, Spicer said she boosted the representation of women in the program to 18.75 percent — “the highest of any program in this city.” But, she said, part of the decline in attendance at women’s committee meetings, in addition to the the general sluggish growth of women entering and staying the industry, is generational. “I think that, in some cases, women who have come after me are more appreciative of just sitting at the table,” she said. “I was never appreciative to be sitting at the table.” Women in leadership, not just in her union but the trades as a whole, “are just a little too comfortable from having their positions,” she said. “Some are quietly pushing, and others are happy to be there.” Though she retired in 2015, she remains active in the committee. Spicer believes that the success of the committee, in terms of fulfilling its mission, is dependent on the willingness of its leadership to pressure union leadership to actively promote tradeswomen and the issues unique to them. “Again, it goes back to: is the person thankful for sitting there, or is the person there because they understand their job is to push?”
SUGGESTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
Though a significant body of research exists on the subject of diversity and inclusion in the building trades, most of it concerns the status and struggle of minority men in entering and staying in the trades. Less academic attention has been given to the role of tradeswomen in confronting gendered barriers unique to them. Specifically, considering the encroachment of non-union labor in both residential and commercial construction throughout the five boroughs, future research should examine the role of women in the non-union construction sector, as it provides far less protection, training, and compensation than the unionized sector. The Economic Policy Institute conducted a much-needed study of racial diversity in the non-union sector in 2017, but it failed to place adequate emphasis on the status of women of all races in the sector. Expanding that research to examine gender diversity — and how it interacts with race and class — would be an interesting and worthwhile effort for researchers seeking to better understand the nature and practices of employers in the non-union construction sector.
As more building trades unions undertake efforts to include more women into their ranks, another useful avenue to explore is the efficacy of diversity and inclusion trainings like the ones negotiated by IBEW Local 3. The anecdotal evidence I observed while attending one of the trainings, in addition to insights gathered from lengthy conversations with the instructor, suggests that tradesmen have generally responded positively to them. However, no statistically-backed research has been conducted on attitudes and/or incidents before and after completion of the six-hour-long training session. Attempting to quantify tradesmens’ attitudes on women in the construction industry — likely through a self-reported questionnaire — would be an admittedly imperfect but useful method to gauge the success of the programs, and could provide more information for those seeking to improve the process and expand its reach to cover more of the industry.
Finally, it should be noted that this paper — conducted largely through dozens of in-person interviews with a wide range of stakeholders and months spent ingesting a wide body of existing research — provides only a brief snapshot of the various barriers faced and progress made by tradeswomen in New York City. Tradeswomen in the city are better represented and are far less of a statistical anomaly than tradeswomen are on a national scale. Still, despite the significant progress and relative success of New York’s construction unions in better incorporating women into their ranks, more important work remains to be done to ensure that tradeswomen face no unjust barriers in their pursuit of a stable, middle-class career in the construction trades.
Recruiting and retaining tradeswomen is an undeniably difficult and complex challenge for the construction industry to confront, but it is clear that union and industry leaders recognize the need for change. Issues like gendered notions of what is a “man’s job,” sexual harassment, explicit graffiti, and perceptions of unequal treatment at work exist independent of and often in concert with the culture of construction work, impacting industry efforts to recruit women into the trades. And for women who do decide to enroll in an apprenticeship program, issues like the visibility of women in leadership and the industry’s acknowledgment (or lack thereof) of the unique health-related issues women face, affect their decision to turn construction work into a lifelong career. Occupying space in a male-dominated industry can be psychologically taxing for women in the trades; many tradeswomen face gender-specific barriers that tradesmen will never need to consider as they advance their careers in the industry. But, facing a massive demand for new tradespeople, the NYC construction industry and its allies are embarking on an effort to maintain its skilled workforce by expanding its ranks to historically-excluded women and people of color by promoting diversity and inclusion as central themes.
Organizations like Nontraditional Employment for Women and Construction Skills are, with support from labor unions and employers, attempting to close the significant representational gap between men and women in the trades. Programs like Tools and Tiaras, founded by a tradeswoman, are proactively educating young girls on the possibilities of a solid middle-class career in the trades, in an effort to close the gap in exposure to the trades between young boys and girls. Union-driven efforts like mandatory diversity and inclusion trainings, paid maternity leave, and campaigns to encourage tradesmen to act as allies are significant initiatives aimed at ensuring retention and inclusion of tradeswomen. And official internal women’s committees, which are often established after robust and extended back-and-forths with largely-male union leadership, are serving as support networks and hubs for tradeswomen to strategize during contract negotiations. Despite the many gender-specific issues that exist for tradeswomen, and often go unnoticed by their male counterparts, these initiatives are notable for their focus on breaking down those barriers in an effort to improve the experiences of tradeswomen at work and general perceptions of the equality on the job site for women who might consider beginning a career in the trades.
Whether driven by an altruistic desire to remedy exclusionary past practices, an economic need for skilled workers regardless of their identities, or a strategic decision to maintain union market share in order to stave off the non-union encroachment which emerged in the wake of the 2007–08 financial crisis, the efforts to combat the barriers tradeswomen face in the construction industry are crucial and worth examining on their own accord. Construction careers offer a path to the middle-class for working-class women, particularly of color, without a college education. As a generation of workers in the trades retire, it is imperative that all relevant actors in the construction industry — unions, employers, and lawmakers alike — continue to take proactive steps to ensure the realization of the enduring, but sometimes fleeting, promises of trade unionism: economic empowerment, unity, and equality.