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NATIONAL | summer 2002


Tradeswomen Unite
A Movement Goes National

Ms. Summer 2002

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A bricklayer from Cascade, Maryland, an elevator inspector from Pacifica, California, a millwright from Farmington, Michigan, a steamfitter from Tacoma, Washington, and several glaziers and tile workers from New Jersey - along with painters, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and machine operators from around the country - recently created a national network. The founding meeting of Tradeswomen Now and Tomorrow (TNT) took place in New York during a weekend that appropriately included an important moment in the city's labor history: International Women's Day, observed on March 8 in part as a tribute to the women who died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.

The national network of tradeswomen and their advocates was a long time in the building. Women have struggled for access to nontraditional jobs since the early 1970s, a quarter of a century after "Rosie the Riveter" and a female labor force were sent home upon the return of World War II troops. The women gathered in New York last March represented groups like Hard Hatted Women in Cleveland that began as support meetings for women who felt isolated in their jobs - as well as the national Coalition of Labor Union Women, and such policy organizations as Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco and the Institute of Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Many were sent by their unions, an endorsement that marked a dramatic change from earlier decades when trade unions tended to put up their own barriers to women seeking higher paying work.

Although tradeswomen made in-roads in the seventies - jobs opened up in 1978 following a National Women's Law Center suit against the Department of Labor demanding goals and timetables for hiring women in construction - the promise of continued progress dimmed as enforcement of the laws diminished during the Reagan Administration. Today, women represent only 2.4 percent of all trades workers throughout the U.S. Through TNT, women plan to speak with a national voice at a time when access to higher paying jobs is critical for poor women and their families, particularly those forced off welfare rolls to work for minimum wages. The network will address issues of sexual harassment, family friendly work policies, and expanded training and pre-apprenticeship opportunities.

They have already begun to share successful tactics and information that will avoid costly mistakes. Martha Davis of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund told a cautionary tale to show how legalistic and legislative strategies can fail if they are not part of a larger social change movement. Advocates had successfully pushed for hearings on sexual harassment in the building trades in New York City. Although the hearings were intense, in the absence of activist follow-up, little changed. Women workers who testified at the hearings said they were blacklisted for years afterward and could not get work even: this despite steps having been taken to hide their identities.

Ronnie Sandler, head of Compliance USA, described a happier outcome. She and her colleagues managed to tap into federal transportation funds to advance women in highway maintenance and construction jobs in Maine. The money spent repaving one mile of road can help train an army of women workers, said Sandler, noting that national highway funding dwarfs any federal monies slotted for workplace equity programs. She subsequently taught others from around the country how to draw down funds to increase the number of women and minority men in transportation jobs.

After electing a board of directors, the women who had spent two years preparing for TNT's founding session, left New York confident that they had constructed a strong new institution that would serve the country's tradeswomen.