The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Tradeswomen Tell Their Survival Stories

Sisters in the Brotherhood
By: Jane Latour
New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2008, paperback, 236 pp., $26

A sociologist tired of—if not ill-suited for—academic life and one of that generation of proper New Leftists committed to organizing or reorganizing the industrial proletariat as a necessary prelude to the much anticipated Red revolution, I hired in at a Midwestern steel mill in late summer of 1977. Among the first things I noticed as a production worker wasn’t the absence of women workers—that fight had been fought and won thanks to civil rights agitation and enabling federal legislation that opened the job sluices to minorities and women—but a practice in which newly hired women in the entry-level labor gangs were assigned on day one to the dirtiest, most physically demanding and discouraging jobs in the mill. The advantage to management was two-fold: weed the women out or, failing that, assign them to lighter duty while consigning men to the brunt of the hump jobs. The game was clever: cull the females while getting men to despise the presence of female coworkers for the ostensible favoritism they seemed to receive.

      It wasn’t all management’s doing. Working on the floor of a blast furnace, an older millwright told me he hated working with women. Why? Because he couldn’t urinate over the platform’s side anymore. Now he had to walk to the men’s toilet 20 yards away. The horror!

      That manufactured drama of keeping women out of well-paying but traditionally male occupations and playing on male fancy while using women (and earlier, people of color) as a wedge in fractionalizing a job-site workforce was common enough in the nation’s labor market and understood, though the level of insidiousness added to foolishness was eye-opening.

      In Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City, part of Palgrave Macmillan’s excellent Studies in Oral History series, labor writer Jane Latour is no less eye-opening as she lets dozens of women in craft positions in New York’s construction trades exhaustively tell their own stories. For them, the jobs were hard enough; the disrespect and the mental pain were worse.

      Latour writes that "as women began to compete for ‘men’s jobs’ [statistically in areas where women made up less than 25 percent of the workforce] far outside the cultural norms, they needed to do more than just show up for work. From the start, this effort to find a place for females in the nation’s steel plants, coal mines, skilled trades, police forces and fire houses—was conducted on contested terrain. To survive, the women had to organize."

      Harassment by fellow workers alone made the workplace toxic. Before organizing, they had to put up with a work environment in which every gesture was a statement that you didn’t belong, if not an implicit threat. These ran from the posting of spread-eagled, clinical pornography and barbed jokes—which numerous women told Latour was much more than simply men entertaining themselves at work—to threatening encounters and violence.

      Even after winning a place in an apprentice program, female trainees were often denied the kind of instruction that would make them work-ready. Once certified as journeymen, these newly minted craft worker women faced job isolation, all tactics used consciously or unconsciously to force women out. A macho work ethic combined with pig ignorance to insist that women were "taking men’s jobs" when the women themselves were often single heads of households and the sole providers of their families; they needed the work. Even some unions did nothing to defend these women, when the union leaders themselves were not the instigators of the problem, as was the case with some of New York’s uniformed services unions, who vigorously challenged court orders to open up their crafts.

      By the 1970s, organizations such as United Tradeswomen were formed to offer political and emotional support in advocating for themselves as women in the skilled trades. Latour describes one pioneering publication as "a constant source of information, advice, humor and first-person accounts by women in a huge range of nontraditional jobs. The message was clear—we’re doing this work, and you can do it, too."

      Picket lines, maintained at trade shows, demanded jobs for women, and caucuses emerged to make the point that women’s issues were class issues. As with civil rights, equity in the workplace was a mode for unifying and not dividing.

      The trajectory for those resisting was never straightforward. While some worked with dissident men to reform their unions or went to the courts, others focused on survival tactics, though the line between the two was frequently and necessarily blurred when their common condition was isolation on the job.

      One of those taking the more overtly political road was electrician Laura Kelber. As she told Latour, "What we were organizing for was the duty of fair representation. If you have a rule about men having a changing shanty, then the extension of that is, if you have women, you should have a changing shanty for women. So it’s not about acceptance or recognition, it’s about fair is fair. We never tried to bypass the [internal union] process."

      For others, as plumber Elaine Ward put it, the need was to "face the fear" and "not take these things personally." Yet of the 60 people completing her four-year apprentice program in 1990 with her, she was the only female graduate.

      Less than three weeks later, Ward testified at a hearing of the city’s Human Rights Commission that:

The reason women drop out of this business is not because of the work itself, but because of the harassment. The harassment is a symptom of a greater problem, which is that there are not enough women on the jobs. As long as I’m one woman alone on a job—and I must say that …99.9 percent of the time I have been the only woman on almost every job I have worked on. …. The harassment works. Eventually, the women are timid enough, exhausted enough, and tired of paying for shrinks to keep their sanity. They quit.

      Stationary engineer Yvone Maitan told Latour about a conversation she had with a male co-worker who was shocked, shocked about the anger she exhibited from all the pressure she was under just to keep her job. He told her he had endured apprentice school and worked the same as Maitan, but without problems. So what was her beef?

I told him, "You had a wife to cook, clean and take care of the kids and make your lunch and wash your clothes and make sure the kids didn’t disturb you while you were studying. I have to do all that by myself. If I had a wife, I wouldn’t feel guilty, either, and school and work would be a cinch. I’d be able to concentrate my extra energy on getting you guys off my back." He responded, "Oh, I hadn’t thought of that."

      Latour’s powerful narrative shares with Barbara Wertheimer’s 1977 classic, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America, an appreciation that women’s work outside the home and the attendant sexual discrimination and harassment were not peculiar or aberrant incidents but central to working class life. As an ethnography of work culture, with its focus on what these craftswomen have to say in rich detail about their own years-long experiences, Latour’s is outstanding. That alone makes it required reading.

      It also shares with Wertheimer an absence of any exhaustive or persuasive explanation about gender discrimination that is more than attitudinal. That’s not a criticism of either author; their stories and their grasp of the problem’s scope stand alone. It is rather an appreciation of what else needs to be understood. Latour’s book is replete with examples of just how hard it was—and is—for women working outside the home to receive parity in training and job opportunities and civil treatment from men. The next question is explaining why the problem persists.

      As a portrait of gender discrimination limited to one industry in one city, it also needs national and international comparisons to be fully understood. Was the series of heartbreaking experiences and the blindness or culpability of the New York City unions a general problem affecting women everywhere in traditional male-dominated workplaces, or stories peculiar to one city’s construction trade? When one worker tells Latour that her ability to travel nationally brought her in contact with a far more inclusive and tolerant workforce, is that because the particular skill required was so rare that a job shortage meant the work ethic was "y’all come" instead of "go away"? Or are construction workers elsewhere simply nicer people?

      Latour tends to play up the early National Organization for Women and its proclivities for helping its working class sisters, comparing it to the fight for women’s rights waged by upper class matrons who supported the early twentieth century’s Women’s Trade Union League. The comparison is tricky, given that the WTUL collapsed precisely because of tensions between the class interests of the trade union women and the cultural aspirations of the society dames.

      She also mistakenly trivializes the opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when she writes that arch Virginia segregationist Howard Smith, then Democratic chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, proposed including women in the statute "as a joke." It was no joke, but a savvy attempt to scuttle the whole civil rights bill, said feminist historian Jo Freeman, whom Latour ironically cites as her source.

      In How ‘Sex’ Got Into Title VII: Persistent Opportunism as a Maker of Public Policy, Freeman writes that Smith indeed

rose up and offered a one word amendment to Title VII, which prohibited employment discrimination, [by adding] "sex" to that one title of the bill in order ‘to prevent discrimination against another minority group, the women’…. (110 Cong. Rec., February 8, 1964, 2577). This stimulated several hours of humorous debate, later enshrined as "ladies’ day in the House," before the amendment was passed by a teller vote of 168 to 133.

      Freeman concludes that

Despite the humor that Smith injected into the "Ladies’ Day" debate, what evidence there is does not indicate that he had proposed his amendment as a joke.

      For Freeman, it was done to confront unions who—even as late as 1964, were not interested in seeing legislation, including an Equal Rights Amendment that conservatives then counterintuitively supported, allowing a flood of new workers to compete for plum construction and well-paying manufacturing jobs.

      Latour also relays the repeated testament by her workers that, except for the harassment and the borderline violence, many said they "love their job." Here Latour is acting the faithful scribe, but I wish she had gone beyond reportage to ask them even tentatively about the nature of their work under corporate rule. Because finding joy in wage labor is a statement that would shock Paul Lafargue, if not Marx himself. Even intricate craftwork under capitalism is alienating and distorted by the profit motive and capital’s plan.

      The work is dangerous, too, with Latour citing statistics showing construction site fatalities accounting for 20 percent of all workplace deaths.

      It’s understandable that women in dead-end, low-paying jobs would attest with brio to the advantages of a skilled and high-paid position, or that the daughters of craft workers would fight for the same privileges, job protections, and the fairer treatment their fathers received. Still "love" is a strong word for work in an industry where construction projects follows market demand for office building, private prison construction, luxury developments, and highways over affordable housing, schools, and mass transit. What’s "good" about craft jobs with those outcomes is something skilled trades unions never ask. It’s a fair enough question for a new multigendered workforce, especially one chockablock with insurgents out to democratize their unions.

      The late Murray Kempton observed in effect that New York’s construction trade unions would support the Nazi building of crematoria if it provided union jobs. The thought doesn’t improve when hard-pressed working women seem to adopt the same paradigm.

      These criticisms aside, Latour’s narrative lets her subjects speak eloquently and on point about the travails of work as actually lived and how women in a virtually all-male industry fought back courageously and against terrific odds to humanize their workplaces. If Latour’s book did nothing else—and it does much more—it would still deserve the widest reading.

About Author

Michael Hirsch is a labor journalist and a member of the New Politics editorial board.

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2 comments on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Tradeswomen Tell Their Survival Stories
  1. a critique of your critique

    Brother Hirsh,I’d like to thank you for reviewing my friend and union sister Jane LaTour’s excellent book, “Sisters in the Brotherhood”. It’s an excellent oral history of women in the trades, and the fact that the book lets my sisters speak for themselves is the greatest thing about Jane’s book, in my view.I suspect that’s what you did NOT like about this work.Jane didn’t set out to draft a grand academic theory of sexism in the workplace – she wanted to give the pioneer generation of tradeswomen in NYC a voice, and she accomplished that.There are lots of other authors who’ve touched on the theory of sexism (start with Frederich  Engels and work your way forward) so your criticism is like going to a baseball game and complaining about not seeing enough touchdowns.Speaking as an African American male union carpenter with 20 years in the trade (14 of that as a shop steward, 12 of that as a labor blogger who writes about the business I work in) I think I can shed some light on the economic basis of hostility to women by a certain element of male tradespeople.One, our jobs are not “plum” jobs by any means.In construction, even in the unionized segment of the industry, we are basically high priced day labor.As a union carpenter, me and my 15,000 union brothers and sisters in NYC (and the other 505,000 union carpenters across the US and Canada) are hired by the day. We do not have seniority – even if you’ve worked for a company for 20 years, you can get laid off tomorrow with no advance warning whatsoever. We can lose  our jobs at any time, for any reason, or absolutely no reason at all.When times are rough (as they are currently and have been since 2007) there aren’t a lot of jobs to go around, so needless to say nobody wants any competition.We also have to talk  about the deunionization of our business.In 1968, the year I was born, the NYC building trades were 100% union and nationally, our industry was 80% union.Today, nationally our industry is only TEN PERCENT union and here in NYC we’re 17% union.For most American tradespeople, construction is a low wage McJob – there are folks building affordable housing in NYC who only make $ 7 an hour off the books (yes, that’s less than minimum wage – on city funded work!) – and for the relative handful of us in the unions, we’re on  shrinking island in a rapidly rising minimum wage sea.That’s why my White brothers so fiercely resisted the racial integration of the trades back in the 1970s and 80s, and that’s why the generation of Black men that got in the trades before me had to enter this industry with baseball bats in hand, literally fighting for their jobs.That also explains the resistance to the women.Of course, there’s another element with the women – the whole gender thing.For a large segment of male tradespeople, having a skill is part of their identity and it’s very gendered for a lot of us. Seeing women do jobs that a lot of guys identified with our manhood was kind of a headgame for a lot of guys.Also, lets not forget the contractors and the all mighty dollar. Believe it or not, toilet facilities was one of the major reasons they objected to women coming in the trades. Back in the day when this business was all men, some jobs had no bathrooms at all (when you had to urinate, you’d use the wall – for defication, an empty joint compound bucket was your toilet) and some jobs had really minimal facilities (picture a slop sink used as a urinal).With women on the jobs, they now had to provide real bathrooms – or at the very least portosans – for ALL of us (the guys included – that was the biggest gain that we as male tradespeople got from women coming into the business)That costs money – and contractors, even the ones who came up on the tools, tend to see construction workers as meat puppets who don’t deserve civilized treatment. Giving us a toilet like a civilized person hurts their bottom line – but, so does getting sued if a woman is on the job and there’s no toilet.As for your statement that “Still “love” is a strong word for work in an industry where construction projects follows market demand for office building, private prison construction, luxury developments, and highways over affordable housing, schools, and mass transit.” professor, this is capitlism!I’m a revolutionary just like you so I’d hope you’d understand that, in a context where we do NOT run the society and the prospect of us being the ones that call the plays instead of investment bankers is pretty far off.In that context, we have to make due with the best of a bad situation.I’ve been a carpenter for 20 years, and I have to tell you I really do love the job.Our job is varied, we’re not always doing the same thing every day, we get to build beautiful stuff (yeah, most of the time it’s for the One Percenters but hey, we get to see it before they do!) and we can see our work every day when we look at the skyline.When you see the Time Warner Building on W 59th St in Manhattan, think of me, because I’m one of the 6,000 men and women who put it there.I’m an interior systems carpenter, so I don’t do the outside part, but if you’ve ever been on the inside, I’m part of the reason it looks so nice.I could rattle off literally 100 other buildings that I helped make as beautiful as they are – including a couple of buildings that aren’t here anymore (towers 1, 2 and 5 of the old World Trade Center) – that’s something to be proud of and I can see why lots of us – men and women alike – love this business despite all the nonsense we have to deal with.As for the merits of building housing, schools and mass transit vs office buildings, prisons and luxury housing 1) we actually build ALL of those structures, even under the present system and 2) as far as having a system where the working class decides what needs to be built rather than the rich guys, I’m all for that (that’s why I’ve been a communist for 30 years, bro!) but we’re not in that place just yet.Our job is better than a lot of other jobs out there – not just the money (when we’re working) but because we get to build really awesome stuff with our two hands and our brains.That’s better than sitting in a cubicle!In any case, there are those of us in the trades who are trying to make the job better – including by helping to unionize the majority of our brothers and sisters who are unrepresented and work in the non union sector. We’re trying to make a good job great again. Jane has been a longtime ally of ours and she’s done a lot for us.By writing this book about our sisters, she’s continuing that role she’s played in helping make our industry a better place to work and for that I applaud her.

  2. Michael Hirsch says:

    Reply to Greg Butler


    You say I wish author Jane LaTour had spent far less time telling the workers’ story in their own words and more on weaving some grand theory. Wrong! I didn’t, and I don’t. Having tradeswomen themselves speaking is a key strength of her book, but it’s one strength among many. Yes, I do wish she had spent a little time querying the tradeswoman who said she “loved” her job—this after a volume of unremitting testimony about just how awful women were treated by coworkers and union officials in the trades. It’s a fair question, I think. It’s also one that follows the book’s logic, because LaTour does more than describe; she marshals evidence in a coherent pattern and interprets it, too. Did the omission sink the book? Hardly. The work is masterly. Was raising the issue necessary? Yes.

         I don’t doubt that you get satisfaction from what you do at work—at least when you’re enabled to do it in an industry that even in good times is seasonal and now faces merciless competition from nonunion contractors –and your sketch of what you do and the pride you get from it rings true for me. I’d even urge you to expand on it, maybe even for the print version of this magazine. But there is an issue about the abysmally low level of job satisfaction under capitalism—an issue that goes way beyond wages, hours and benefits—that we lefties shouldn’t neglect. The subjects of LaTour’s book were in perfect positions to explain not only how they coped with a uniformly ugly, brutish and sizably coworker-inflicted harassing work routine. They could have attested, if indeed they believed it, to what satisfactions there were that could make work in a forbidding, sexist industry—incredible as it sounds and despite the hell they encounterred—lovable.

         You dispute the notion (correctly) that the trades are festooned with “plum” jobs. I said they were only plum in context, which is in comparison to the low-pay, dead-end work women faced in traditional female occupations, which is also LaTour’s point.

         You imply that I, as a “professor,” which I am not and haven’t been for some 35 years, don’t get the industry. Maybe I don’t—too few do—but it’s not from a lack of familiarity. I grew up in a union household—my dad was a carpenter, btw—and I spent six years in an Indiana steel mills until the 1980s mass layoffs, first as a production worker and the bulk of my tenure as a machinist. I’ve been a trade union staff writer in New York since the mid-1980s. I think I even get the exigencies of working in the New York City trades, certainly from my time as a lecturer in the IBEW’s labor school during the 1980s and ’90s and hearing a litany of horror stories from apprentices. So no need to rate whose prole credentials are more authentic than whose.

         What’s most troubling about your reply is this. You write that “for the relative handful of us in the unions, we’re on [a] shrinking island in a rapidly rising minimum wage sea.. That’s why my White brothers so fiercely resisted the racial integration of the trades back in the 1970s and 80s, and that’s why the generation of Black men that got in the trades before me had to enter this industry with baseball bats in hand, literally fighting for their jobs.”

         Resisting equal hiring was not just vile; it was unnecessary, but trades leaders, rather than tamping down tensions by looking for ways to unite people, actually stoked the flames, as LaTour makes clear, certainly in respect to women. The late journalist Murray Kempton wasn’t wrong to say about New York’s craft union leaders’ bat-like vision that “They would build gas ovens if it was steady work.”

         What could the trades have done instead? Rather than acting as ventriloquists’ dummies for the real estate industry and fronting for every dim-witted corporate project, craft union leaders could have pushed for job-generating, public-friendly construction projects, which were and are in short supply. Schools, mass transit, affordable housing, rebuilt and expanded superstructures—these are public needs that the public would support if asked. They’re never asked. Not by the trades. Why be satisfied with an industry that prizes office buildings, road repair and public-funding stadia over other vital construction needs? No wonder the city’s construction trades guilds were said to be suffering from an “ediface complex.”

         The business class has plans. Why don’t the construction unions counterplan, instead? Robert Fitch, a longtime friend of LaTour’s, wrote extensively in this magazine and elsewhere about labor leaders’ repeated failure of guts and imagination. So does the AFGE’s Bill Fletcher, who thinks labor organizations can only survive by acting as “social unions” linking members needs to those of the larger community and society. Even in the face of business’s labor extermination practices, too few unions recognize the need to aggressively add community organizing to their toolkits. The same holds true too often about mobilizing, energizing and empowering their own members. But you know that.

         The skilled trades’ and other unions’ making do with “a bad situation,” as you put it, is not even descriptively accurate. If anything, leaving it at making do has been their undoing. I’m all for discussing what practical options labor, at any point in its history, had in taking a different tact. Certainly Peter Brennan’s organizing a Wall Street lynch mob against antiwar protestors in spring 1971 was no way to build a new Jerusalem, or even maintain the old one. The notion that labor should have a say not only in management prerogatives but in corporate strategies should always be on the table. Had it been, it’s likely African American and women workers entering the trades would have been treated as allies, not threatening outsiders.

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