Sisters in the Brotherhoods

Book Review: Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City, by Jane LaTour. 308 pages. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. $24.95.

As a journeyman electrician in Portland, Oregon, I hadn’t thought of my choice to enter the trades as a political act. It was eye-opening to learn from Jane LaTour’s book that for some of the pioneers this was their aim.

For Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City, LaTour collected oral histories from tradeswomen who were the firsts in their fields in the late 1970s and early ’80s. A labor educator and journalist with experience in nontraditional work herself, LaTour explores what it would take for the trades to be a way out of what she calls “the female job ghetto.”

Raised by a single mother who juggled full-time work and school, I was well aware of the challenges facing working women 30 years ago. I was less familiar with how much the breakthroughs in construction were directly grounded in the women’s movement.

In the heart of a social movement, tradeswomen pioneers knew the importance and effectiveness of collective action. A key organization in their work in New York was United Tradeswomen, which operated from 1979 to1985. “Creating a political voice to bring people together and to organize collective solutions to political problems, rather than individuals acting in isolation, was a major accomplishment,” shares one veteran from that time.

For those active in their unions, it could feel like a choice between surviving on the job and working for larger change. Already highly visible, women who stepped into active roles sometimes increased anger towards them as outsiders and troublemakers. From picketing jobsites to filing lawsuits and working for enforcement of federal laws and consent decrees, women had to force the doors of opportunity open, often at a high personal cost. Sisters shows us where we have come from with the hope of more change to come.

STILL AT TWO PERCENT

I looked to Sisters to deepen my historical perspective and gain new insights for organizing among tradeswomen. Some of the history was familiar. I knew that shortly after President Carter issued an executive order in 1978 to increase women’s access to work in the trades, women’s participation reached 2 percent—and has stayed there. I was surprised to learn that the original goal was 6.9 percent women on selected jobsites, with 20-25 percent of apprentices to be women. I have yet to be on that jobsite!

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Now, more than 20 years after the first women walked onto the jobsite, much has changed and much has stayed the same. My five-year apprenticeship began in the fall of 2000. I wasn’t faced with outright hostility, verbal abuse, or physical threats, nor the lack of access to bathrooms or blatant union corruption detailed in some of the stories in Sisters. Other themes are more familiar: finding adequate training and the support necessary to survive, looking for ways to engage within the union and on broader issues, and wishing there was more common ground.

As a member of the next generation of tradeswomen, I can see that a lot of progress has been made. I still collect “Moments in Brotherhood”—instances where the old school, male culture reveals itself in a funny or stark way—and exchange these with my union sisters. A favorite from the book tells of a woman receiving her completion certificate after three years of training. It’s dated May 2003 and certifies Brother Angela Olszewski as journey level.

But I have now also experienced the tenderness and mutual aid that comes with true expressions of brotherhood. The newer women apprentices I talk to are largely having a good experience and many are getting solid training. A woman who once said she didn’t “have the right equipment” to run work is now a project manager. In some significant ways the sacrifices of our foremothers have paid off—and yet we’re still at 2 percent, the trades still not offering readily accessible good jobs for women.

And this is a different political time. Unions are in a rapid decline, threatening the high pay and good benefits of many of these traditionally male jobs. In order to build on the legacy of Sisters and continue to dismantle occupational segregation, we must recognize our common ground with the rest of the labor movement. We need to continue to sound the call that the continued sense of entitlement and exclusive practices on the part of unions will mean disaster for us all.

In addition, we’re in the midst of an economic crisis and facing global warming. The moment is ripe for organizing. Unprecedented alliances are being formed between unions, environmental groups, and community-based organizations. No longer having to battle the worst of the culture wars, can we revive our unions and work towards job equity? Are they not the same fight?


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Lisa Serrano is a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48. She is helping organize a workshop highlighting tradeswomen's experience and what the future holds for women in skilled blue-collar jobs and their unions at the Labor Notes Conference April 23-25. Contact her at kingcobra_89 [at] hotmail [dot] com for more information.