Since Nov. 2, progressives blogs have been rife with talk about how to build a broad-based coalition that can change the way we do business in this country. On the evening of Thursday, Dec. 2, Tradeswomen, Inc. showed how to walk such talk, as it celebrated its 25th anniversary with a joyous event at the Oakland Museum.
Founded in 1979, Tradeswomen, Inc. is dedicated to getting women into the trades, keeping them there and developing tradeswomen’s leadership capabilities. On Dec. 2, the exemplary spirit in which it pursues these goals was palpable in the bustling good cheer at the crowded jazz reception in the Oakland Museum restaurant. There tradeswomen, tradesmen, apprentices, unionists, contractors, public officials, workforce advocates and friends of Tradeswomen, Inc. exchanged memories, congratulations and business cards.
About 240 people, most of them from the Bay Area, attended the event, said Debra Chaplan, a member of Tradeswomen, Inc.’s board and a staffer with the State Building Trades Council, AFL-CIO, who helped organize the celebration. The State Building Trades Council is the umbrella organization for construction unions in California. The handsome program commemorating Tradeswomen, Inc.’s first quarter century of work included tributes from sixteen locals representing among them six unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Plumbers & Steamfitters union, as well as greetings from the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council.
In further testimony to Tradeswomen, Inc.’s extensive support network, the commemorative booklet also displayed congratulations from the City and the Port of Oakland, the National Economic Development and Law Center, PG&E, nine contractors in northern and southern California and EBMUD, among others. EBMUD pipeline superintendent Margo Schueler, a resident of West Berkeley, was among those at the festivities.
Also in attendance was the City of Berkeley’s Building Official, a.k.a. the city’s chief building inspector, Joan MacQuarrie. MacQuarrie offered her own history as testimony to the Tradeswomen, Inc. crucial role. “I worked as a Muni driver, an auto mechanic, a BART mechanic, a carpenter and electrician,” MacQuarrie said. “Then I became a general contractor. None of that would have been possible without Tradeswomen, Inc. and its forerunner, Advocates for Women.”
MacQuarrie got involved in the tradeswomen’s movement in the 1970s. A landmark achievement of that period, she recalled, was getting the California Apprenticeship Council in 1976 to institute goals and timetables for bringing women into the trades—the first time such a thing had happened in the United States.
That victory and other hard-won accomplishments were made vivid when party moved into the museum’s James Moore Theatre. A video entitled “Women Building and Protecting California” showed tradeswomen doing just that in all manner of trades and contexts. Then, to applause and earsplitting whoops and whistles, Tradeswomen, Inc. paid tribute to individuals who have made special contributions to its mission.
First to be honored was Robert Balgenorth, journeyman electrician and President of the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, which sponsors the annual “Women Building California” conference. There followed recognition of teacher Eva Clark and counselor and employment specialist Richey Rice-Gore, both hailed as “tireless advocates” for bringing women into the trades. The evening ended with tributes to Tradeswomen, Inc.’s “founding sisters,” union electrician Molly Martin, workforce development specialist Salafai (Susie) J. Suafai, and former Regional Administrator of the United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau in San Francisco Madeline Mixer.
Molly Martin, the first female electrician for the City of San Francisco, founded and edited Tradeswomen Magazine, the only national publication of its kind, and along with many others helped to produce it for nearly twenty years.
Susie Sufai helped start Tradeswomen, Inc. when she was Director of the Women in Apprenticeship Program, an organization funded by the United States Department of Labor to place women in nontraditional employment in the construction, manufacturing and automotive industries in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As director of the Department of Labor’s San Francisco office, Madeline Mixer, a Berkeley resident, spent twenty years urging federal and state apprenticeship agencies and state apprenticeship councils to set, enforce and realize goals for women. She also established and continues to fund the publication of Pride and a Paycheck, a women’s support newsletter and guide to blue collar jobs. Mixer is currently working with another Berkeleyan, licensed plumber and contractor Naomi Friedman, to train women as apartment house managers, a project described in the Daily Planet last summer.
The stories told by each of the honorees dramatized the challenges women faced in gaining entry into the trades and staying there in the face of male inhospitability, if not outright harassment. “Walking onto the job site—just going to work in the morning,” said Martin, “was a feminist act.”
Is that still the case? Not to Mary Lieser, Vice President of the Northern California Regional Council of Carpenters. “It’s time to stop saying that tradeswomen are ‘non-traditional’,” Lieser remarked at the reception. “I’ve been a carpenter for nineteen years. We’re not un-traditional; we’re there.”
Certainly one place that that women have arrived is the City of Berkeley’s building inspection department, where, Joan MacQuarrie reported, three of the eight building inspectors are women (until one recently got promoted out of the job, there were four). “The City of Berkeley made an effort to create a promotional ladder,” said MacQuarrie, “so that people, and women in particular, could move up into building inspector positions.”
But the Berkeley story is hardly typical. Currently, women make up only about 5 percent of the trades workforce in California. That’s a huge improvement over when Tradeswomen, Inc. was founded, when almost no women were in the trades, and better than the 2 percent figure nationwide. But in 1983, 11 percent of apprentices in the trades were female. The decline reflects in part the California Apprenticeship Council’s elimination of the goals and timetables for women in the trades after the passage of Prop. 209 in 1996.
And on the federal level, the tradeswomen movement recently suffered a major setback when the Bush administration axed 2004 funding for the Department of Labor’s Women in Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Occupations (WANTO) grants program—the only program of its kind. In both 2002 and 2003, Tradeswomen, Inc. received WANTO awards of $100,000—money that it used to develop and strengthen its connections with employers and labor unions in the greater Bay Area and throughout the state to bring more qualified women into high-wage, high-skilled trades careers.
In the face of new challenges, Tradeswomen, Inc. remains committed to mission through the efforts of its paid staff of two and its hundreds of unpaid advocates in organized labor, business, education, government and the community at large. The organization’s next annual conference will take place in Sacramento on May 14-15, 2005. Its next brunch will be in San Francisco on Saturday, Jan. 29. For more information, including how to get Tradeswomen, Inc.’s newsletter, job announcements, publications and other kinds of information and assistance, call 891-8773, ext. 313 or go to www.tradeswomen.org on the Internet.