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Union Maids

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.

New Internationalist issue 090 magazine cover This article is from the August 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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