For Tradeswomen, Sexual Harassment Is Old News
In the wake of current harassment allegations against sexual predators including movie moguls and our president, tradeswomen applaud women who are telling their stories and rising up against this outrage.
Women in male-dominated occupations like the construction trades have been fighting this fight for as long as we can remember. We’ve been on the front lines of the feminist movement for decades defending our sisters, supporting legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and helping employers and unions see their responsibility on this issue. Yet, we and our fight have been invisible except to each other. Every tradeswoman has experienced harassment and all of us can say #Metoo.
In 1980 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction job in San Francisco. That’s how it was for us then, and that’s how it is now. Women make up less than three percent of the construction workforce. We are often alone in a crowd of hundreds of men.
I would go to work, dressed in boots, hardhat and work clothes just like the men, looking over my shoulder anticipating violence and hostility. In the porta potties amidst the ubiquitous dicks drawn on the walls would be my name underneath the sentiment “I WANT TO FUCK YOU.” I was “the cunt.”
I spent my working life in what we now call a hostile work environment. We had no word for it then. There was no recourse. You could complain to your foreman or your union rep but they would tell you that the harassment was your own fault and if you couldn’t take it you should leave the job. I loved the work, I loved the paycheck and so I kept quiet and kept my head down. And I depended on male allies. My tool buddy on that job — the only guy who would work with me — was a Hispanic/native man whose family had been in California since it was still part of Mexico. He had my back.
Some things have changed since then and the changes are the direct result of feminist organizing. In the 1970s tradeswomen who had been the target of harassment began to bring lawsuits against employers. They lost. Then the civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Jimmy Carter, released regulations declaring sexual harassment to be discrimination under federal law. At the same time his Department of Labor settled a lawsuit with tradeswomen that prohibited sex discrimination by employers with government contracts, including the construction industry. Tradeswomen finally had legal backing.
Court cases moved forward. In the Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case, the Supreme Court distinguished between and prohibited two kinds of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurred when women were made offers such as a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. Equally important, however, was the hostile environment harassment where men could make the everyday workplace into a place of threats, hostility, offensive images, abusive language. This is the kind of harassment tradeswomen most frequently endure.
The movie North Country dramatizes conditions that led to the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1988 by Lois Jensen and female miners at the Eveleth Taconite Company in Minnesota. After these women won a $3.5 million settlement, employers began to take notice. Our working conditions began to improve.
We were helped by a few dedicated lawyers. In San Francisco we were lucky to work with attorneys at Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center. Other legal groups on the east coast included the National Women’s Law Center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum).
That sexual harassment is now against the law is one big change tradeswomen have noticed over the years that has improved our working lives in a male-dominated workplace. In many other ways our workplace environment hasn’t changed that much. We are still underemployed, last hired and first fired, often poorly trained, generally undervalued, and often the only woman on the job site.
Yet some tradeswomen have had successful careers and are retiring with good pensions. Some have become apprenticeship directors, business agents, and chairs of state building trades councils. We have built organizations and networks across the country to improve our lot.
I just returned from our national conference, Women Build Nations. It started as Women Building California, co-sponsored by the California Building and Construction Trades Council and Tradeswomen, Inc., in 2001, and has now become nationally co-sponsored by North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and this year with Chicago Women in Trades. A record 1600 women and male allies attended and there were workshops on sexual harassment.
Tradeswomen are glad sexual harassment is now a mainstream issue, but for us it’s nothing new. We’ve been resisting for decades and still, we persist.