New Internationalist

Union Maids

Issue 090

Trade unions have made important gains for working people. But women’s issues have never attracted much attention. Here Martha Tabor and Bonnie Alter talk about their experiences as feminists and union members.

Photo: Martha Tabor
Ex-welder Martha Tabor: 'There's more room for social change in a union and more job protection Photo: Martha Tabor

I got into trade union activity through the anti-Vietnam war movement and organizing the grape boycott in Washington in support of the United Farm Workers. I’ve had two careers as a union member - from 1969 to 1973 at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) working the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and from 1974 until about a year ago as a welder and member of the Piledrivers’ Union, At first I just wanted to use the union for my own purposes. But then my activism with the grape boycott got me in trouble. I began to think of the union in terms of job protection and other concrete advantages. So I shifted to see it as an institution that served people in very specific and important ways in their workplace. I worked my way up and became President of the local. Then in 1972 the Vice-President of the Chicago local and I ran for National President and VicePresident. We knew we would lose but we raised some important issues. After I left OEO I finally came back to Washington needing to figure out what to do next. I decided to go to night school and learn welding. As compared to shuffling papers at OEO the idea was romantic and fascinating.

It took me about eight months to get certified and then I started to look for work - just when the subway construction boom began to dry up. I set out to get a union job not because I thought the work would be any different, but because I’m a trade union supporter. There is more potential for social change in a union and more job protection. But I couldn’t get the business agent of the Piledrivers to give me the time of day. He had men out of work, there were no women in the local and he was a fairly uptight guy. I was too much for him to deal with. So my first welding job, which lasted about a year, was non union.

It took me a long time just to find out how to join the union. I met a few unionized women carpenters through a group called Women Working in Construction. They told me to go the the carpenters’ apprentices contest where I pinned down a union official and got him to tell me in black and white what I needed to do.

When I finally landed a union job, I was the first woman in the local. That was horrendous. When I came up for membership after my three-month trial period the men discussed for 40 minutes whether I should be accepted and whether I could do the work. The leadership, at least, rook the position that I should be voted in and allowed to prove like anybody else whether I could make it or not. I was finally accepted and took the oath. And then someone shouted ‘Well now that we’ve got a woman in the local, let’s have a pussy party.’ I felt so furious, powerless and liumiliated. It was the low point of my time in construction work.

That made me determined to be an active union member and to force them to take me seriously. I went to all the meetings and spoke up regularly. Now there’s another woman in the local and new women coming in will never have to go through what I experienced. In that kind of situation you can’t help but feel like you are bearing the burden for all women.

The building trades are definitely slow on women’s issues. When we asked the Carpenters to move their national convention out of a state that had not yet ratified the Equal Rights Amendment the union refused, The United Mineworkers on the other hand did move theirs to an F RA state. There are a lot more women in the Mineworkers. They are more visible and vocal. At the last national convention their Executive passed a resolution supporting the struggle of their sisters in the mines for equal opportunity. The building trades aren’t at that point yet.

In the end whatever progress women make in unions will be the direct result of pressure from those first waves of pioneers who have broken the ranks. My experience is that social change only comes from pressure by involved and affected interest groups. And this is no different.

Finally the isolation of being a woman doing that job was too much for me. Anger and humiliation can get you to prove yourself like I did. But they can’t sustain and nourish you. I couldn’t have picked a more macho trade if I had tried. After a while, it got to me. The isolation and lack of support was the same on both union and non-union construction sites. I know the groundwork that’s been laid by women like me is important, but 1 also know that I paid a high emotional and psychological price.

The only way women are going to make changes is by working collectively.

Before I became involved in the trade union movement what really politicized me was being a waitress and then a secretary. I had always been aware of discrimination in these jobs, but to experience it, to be dealt with on the basis of a stereotype no matter how smart you were or how well you did the job, it was a real eye-opener. This led me to get on the negotiating team for our department at City Hall, and from there into running the job evaluation programme. When I was first in the union I saw it only in terms of the old guard - you know, the guys who have been around for a hundred years. They know exactly how things are done, they have their little sexist mannerisms. It was them versus the brave new wave, men and women who were the radical part of the union. Later on as I got more into the complexities of how a local branch runs and how a union runs. I became more aware of women's position and the way women's issues are dealt with.

There are many problems for women in unions. First of all (it's a cliche by now but it's absolutely true) women do double time - they work at work and then at home. And certainly in most locals the union meetings are after work. It's very difficult to come if you have a child. A lot of women I've spoken to over the years would like to come to meetings but just can't because they can't get a babysitter or leave their husband.

Photo: Roger Rolfe
Bonnie Alter: 'We have to keep up the pressure.' Photo: Roger Rolfe

If you manage to overcome this and do get involved in the union, as a woman initially you just don't have the same skills and confidence that men do. Women as a group are more timid to stand up at a mike or question the old-timers who know everything and who are on the executive of the local. Then if you get the confidence to speak out you aren't taken seriously. There's a great fear of being made fun of or being mocked. In the last year, sexual harassment has been an issue that women are confronting and trying to deal with. But there's a certain amount of harassment that goes on even at the basic level of speaking at the meeting.

Bargaining is another problem. Issues that get to the table are seldom the priority of women. Not necessarily because women aren't a healthy percentage of the membership, but because these issues aren't seen as 'bread and butter' questions by the negotiating team. There may not be enough women on the team or the women aren't strong or vocal enough.

It takes strong burning issues for women to get it together. One example was the recent telephone operators strike. This was a new union, mainly women, and it was a women's fight against Bell Canada-a paternalistic monopoly. They won their strike in the end. But it took a lot of courage and natural support.

The only way women are going to make changes is by working collectively. There are many older women who don't see themselves as 'women's libbers', but who understand the need to join together in their workplace to stop injustices.

You can sense the change in the air. For instance the push of women into jobs where only men have worked in the past - the unions have supported them. Or the improvements in salaries for poorly paid women through union negotiations. Or the support for women's committees which are starting up in many unions. These changes aren't widespread, but they're promising. Leaders in the central labour bodies are also speaking out more strongly on women's issues. This has a ripple effect down to the local union presidents who realize they should be discussing these things with the membership.

If unions push for flexible hours and job-sharing this would mean more women would be able to join the work force and keep their jobs after having children. And more men could help bring up their children.

I'm not certain what effect women will have on unions in the long run. We have made incredible strides, but the Canadian economy is in bad shape. Generally women are still first laid off. If women continue to lose their jobs they will be unable to keep up pressure on the labour movement. And change won't happen without them.

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