By DON McINTOSH
A Portland-area construction apprentice got a whirlwind all expense paid trip to the U.S. Capitol last month as part of a union effort to showcase efforts to diversify construction.
North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) was looking for panelists for a March 8 presentation to members of Congress and their staff, and asked the Oregon Building Trades Council to find someone to take part. United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290 nominated Kasey Finegan as someone who sets an example of participation in her union.
The panel would be a chance to tell her story.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Finegan says she had to be highly self-reliant, mainly because she was broke. She taught herself to use basic tools and worked on her own car. But she never imagined she’d one day be earning a good living while training to become a journeyman steamfitter. Steamfitting is a highly skilled occupation, installing mechanical piping systems that transport fluids and gases at high pressure. One day, while shopping at Safeway in Southeast Portland, she saw a flier for Constructing Hope on the floor and picked it up. Constructing Hope is a Portland nonprofit that prepares nontraditional workers to become construction apprentices. On completing its program, she got direct entry into Local 290 in 2020.
“It just opened up a world of opportunity for me.”
Now in her third year of training to be a steamfitter, Finegan is active as a volunteer, serving on Local 290’s political action committee and as recording secretary of its diversity committee.
In Washington, DC, she would explain how the union apprenticeship changed her life. The trip would last 48 hours, flying to DC Tuesday and flying home Thursday. March 8, the sandwich day, was jam-packed, starting with the NABTU panel.
The event took place in a Capitol conference room during Women in Construction Week. NABTU president Sean Garvey introduced the panel, followed by national AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler.
Women have doubled in the construction workforce in the last decade, Garvey said, but that means going from 2% to 4%. There’s a lot of room for growth, and Finegan told members of Congress that she feels like she’s part of a culture change.
“The length to which Local 290 is going to increase diversity within our trade and within our local, it’s tremendous.”
Case in point: The week before she flew to DC, Finegan says, she was climbing up a ladder—the only woman on a job site that day—when a group of ironworkers started whistling and catcalling.
“Now, I’m pretty feisty. I have no problem turning around and educating those gentlemen,” Finegan said. “But before I even had the chance to, a dozen of my brothers stood up behind me and they educated those ironworkers for me …. It was probably one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had on the job.”
Following the panel, she got a private tour of Capitol building. She got to meet national AFL-CIO president Shuler, and she passed up a tour of the White House to see Shuler testify at a Senate hearing chaired by Bernie Sanders. Then UA special representative Laura Ceja gave Finegan a tour of the UA national headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland, and introduced her to leaders of the union. Finegan says as a history nerd, her favorite part was the archives room, chock full of records, tools, pictures, and artifacts dating back to the union’s founding in 1889.
“I just wanna learn even more now,” Finegan told the Labor Press. “To hear the discussions that take place behind the scenes …. Most of us tradespeople that are working with the tools in the buildings, we don’t get to ever see that or understand how those processes work.”
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