By MALLORY GRUBEN
From afar, the group of about a dozen people sitting around a high top table at Big Al’s restaurant and arcade in Vancouver might look like a family reunion. Adults greet one another with hugs and handshakes. Children swap crayons as they work on coloring sheets.
But it turns out this is a union family at work. Over beers, Ironworkers Local 29 members Willow Ryan, Courtney Newberg, and Shane Nehls are reviewing plans for a new program spearheaded by the Sisters of Iron women’s committee to help attract and retain more ironworkers.
The committee’s bimonthly social is an example of how “sisters groups” support tradeswomen and grow union ranks. That’s especially important now, when the construction industry has more open jobs than workers to fill them.
“Every union needs more people right now. Every union is struggling to get young people to apply,” said Liz Nichols, business agent for Cement Masons Local 555. “Women are 50% of the population, but we make up 9% of the (construction) workforce in Oregon. … So how do we recruit and retain more women? Because we need it.”
Keeping recruits from heading for the exits
Journeyman electrician Amy Yates is part of the IBEW Local 48 Sisters in Solidarity women’s committee. She serves on the retention subcommittee, which tries to find ways to keep women from leaving the trades. Yates said the group has talked about getting more specialty safety equipment made for women, starting a mentorship program, and collecting data.
“We don’t have data to prove that (tradeswomen are quitting) on a large scale, but we suspect that they are because we’ve heard so many anecdotes,” Yates said.
Tradeswomen are uniquely suited to keep female coworkers in the union because they live through the challenges many members cite for leaving. They have personal advice for how to manage the loneliness that comes from being the only woman on a jobsite, or how to respond when a male coworker says something inappropriate.
Of the women sheet metal workers Korri Bus has seen leave the trade, all of them told her it was because it was too emotionally taxing to handle isolation, harassment, and discrimination.
“It’s never physical. It’s not that they can’t do the job, it’s just that it’s emotionally hard,” said the Local 16 member. Sisters committees offer built-in emotional support by bringing the women together in one place. The structure and size of a sisters committee varies by local, but all of the groups host regular meetings where women swap stories, vent about bad work days, and solicit advice for everything from learning new jobsite skills to responding to harassment.
“It’s kind of silly, but we had a member ask what kind of sports bra people wear at work,” said Nichols, the cement mason. “It’s a space where people can ask questions like that. Where else could you ask that question? The guys aren’t going to have a lot of experience for that.”
In March, Bus helped start Sheet Metal Local 16’s women’s committee. She’s already heard from her union sisters that they feel like they have their “own little community” to come to when they need a friend. That community didn’t exist when Bus started her apprenticeship in 2007. To have one now feels weird but uplifting, she said.
“I never had that kind of support before, like ever,” Bus said. “I’m excited that especially the newer generation of sheet metal females are coming in and feeling supported out of the gate. They are not alone.”
As women get involved in the sisters committee, they’re empowered to speak up in their union halls, said Kim Neel, a staff member at the nonprofit Oregon Tradeswoman whose job is to support graduates of its state-certified apprenticeship-readiness program. Sisters committee members start advocating for funding to send more sisters to the “Women Build Nations” conference organized by North America’s Building Trades Unions, Neel said. Or they help craft new policies that improve working conditions for women.
‘Kicking ass in the trade’
Sisters committees also help recruit new workers to the trades. Willow Ryan, the co-chair of Sisters of Iron, said her group “represents that there are women who are kicking ass in this trade.” Ironwork is physically demanding and historically was exclusively male. That doesn’t mean women can’t do the work, but if prospective tradeswomen never see female ironworkers, they won’t consider it for themselves.
“It’s such an enormous concept for me to make sure we are representing the possibility for a young girl … from the outside looking in to be like, ‘Look! There are women! I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life, and finally I see there is a green light. I can go for it,’ ” Ryan said.
Sisters of Iron hosts a public social every other month. The meeting is open to all Local 29 members, as well as friends, family, and fellow workers from other trades.
The meetings are casual: Members chat about work and home life over burgers and beers. But committee work happens, too. At the social in March at Big Al’s, Ryan brought a folder of documents outlining the early plans to appoint a “workers resources advocate” on jobsites where Local 29 is working. That person would be a crewmember who workers could go to for help using assistance programs offered by the union, like free counseling or hardship funds. The advocate would also connect first-time female apprentices with an on-site mentor in addition to their journeyman.
“That’s what is brewing,” Ryan said. “And that’s what we discussed at the social.”
Contrary to the assumption that the sisters groups are for women only, most are open to all members of their local, no matter what gender, and male allies do sometimes attend. Some sisters committees also host training or workshops for all union members. Sisters of Iron hosts hands-on training every other month to supplement the skills workers use in the field. Long, the journeyman ironworker, said she attended a session on rigging to sharpen her skills. The Sisters knew to keep it kid friendly, so she didn’t have to worry about finding childcare.
“I’m a single mom and if we didn’t do that, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to go all of the time because I always have my children when I’m not working,” she said. And that’s a bonus for all working parents — not just women, she said.
That’s true of many improvements women’s committees make, said Dolores Doyle, an IBEW Local 48 journeyman. Female-led initiatives to get parental leave, for example, benefit any worker who is growing their family. In that way, the sisters’ work boosts recruitment and retention unionwide.
“I’m sure there are plenty of men in this trade who feel isolated and frustrated and alone,” Doyle said. “It’s a human condition. Women have just decided we really need to work on this.”
- CARPENTERS LOCAL — 503 Sisters in the Brotherhood 5 p.m. first Thursday of the month at Lucky Lab, 915 SE Hawthorne, Portland
- IRONWORKERS LOCAL 29 — Sisters of Iron Rotating dates and locations, with next social set for 11 a.m. June 18 at Big Al’s Vancouver, 16615 SE 18th St., Vancouver. Open to members and non-members. Contact email@example.com.
- IBEW LOCAL 48 — Sisters in Solidarity Third Monday of the month, 5:30 p.m. dinner, 6 p.m. meeting at the Local 48 Meeting Hall, 15937 NE Airport Way, Portland, and virtually on Zoom. Contact Will Hodges for Zoom info firstname.lastname@example.org.
- CEMENT MASONS LOCAL 555 — Steel Edge Women First Thursday of the month at 6 p.m.; rotating locations. Call Liz at 503-789-9706 for more information.
- SHEET METAL LOCAL 16 — Local 16 women’s committee Rotating dates and locations, with next set for 10 a.m. July 16 via Zoom. Contact email@example.com for more information.
- LABORERS LOCAL 737 — Women @ Work Second Thursday of the month at 4:30 p.m.; Local 737 campus, 17230 NE Sacramento St. Suite 202, and online.
- OPERATING ENGINEERS LOCAL 701 — Sisters of 701 Rotating dates and location; contact Amanda at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS AND STEAMFITTERS LOCAL 290 — Sisters in Solidarity and their supporters meet second Friday of the month at 6 p.m. in the union hall diversity committee room at 20210 SW Teton Ave., Tualatin, and virtually on Zoom.