Advocating for Women in the Male Dominated Trades
The IBEW's Women’s Committees are empowering the sisterhood and making locals proud
They’re advocates for their union and the building trades, mentors, volunteers and friends who understand what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.
New local women’s committees are embracing those roles and more, empowering IBEW sisters, spreading goodwill and inspiring future tradeswomen.
“We get a lot of questions about what it’s like to be part of a union,” said Susan Sweeney, co-chair of the Syracuse, N.Y., Local 97 committee that makes a splash wherever members turn up in their Rosie the Riveter “Power and Light Society” T-shirts. “We’re getting our good name out there.”
Local 97 women have filled the pantry at a Ronald McDonald house, walked for Alzheimer’s research and are talking about building a Habitat for Humanity home. Women in Portland, Ore., Local 48 are wiring a transitional home for Native American women recently released from prison, mentoring them in the process and steering some toward IBEW apprenticeships. Women in Vancouver, B.C., Local 258 collect food, clothing and personal hygiene items for the homeless, among a long list of good deeds.
And there are social occasions, like the “Paint and Sip” party – an art class with wine – that introduced Local 97 women in the Buffalo area to their new committee. In Albany, at the eastern end of the local’s jurisdiction, women gathered for a race-day lunch at Saratoga. In Syracuse, it was a barbecue with a band.
For the women and their locals, the committees are a win-win. In fact, some of the biggest fans are IBEW men.
“Everybody gets it, and loves it,” said Local 48 Business Manager Gary Young, citing conversations he’s had with IBEW leaders up and down the West Coast.
“They’re another tool in our tool box,” Kamloops, B.C., Local 993 Business Manager Glen Hilton said, praising the women who founded a committee that meets via teleconference to reach the local’s far-flung boundaries. “If I could have 150 more, 200 more of them, I would. My confidence in them is that high.”
Women in many IBEW locals have gathered informally for years, taking on charity projects and advising each other about surviving and thriving in the trades. But now they’re getting the union’s formal stamp of approval.
A resolution that passed unanimously at the 2016 International Convention in St. Louis urged locals to recognize women’s committees officially, as they do with RENEW/Next-Gen for young workers and the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus.
“All locals need to engage our sisters and make them feel comfortable in the workplace,” said Don Daley, then-business manager at Long Island, N.Y., Local 1049, speaking in favor of the resolution from the convention floor. “We need to encourage them to gather with a collective voice. This resolution recognizes the importance, strength and success that comes from a diversified workforce.”
IBEW sisters attending North America’s Building Trades Unions tradeswomen’s conferences had raised the subject of women’s committees during caucuses chaired by Carolyn Williams, director of IBEW’s Department of Civil and Community Engagement. She brought the proposal to International President Lonnie Stephenson, who agreed to create an international committee with representatives from each district and to submit the resolution urging locals to launch their own. The Third and Ninth Districts are also forming their own district-wide committees, and other districts have expressed interest.
“Women’s committees are an asset to everyone,” Williams said. “They are a great resource for local unions in carrying out their duties and responsibilities, from engaging the membership and working in the community to civic and political involvement. And they can play a significant role in motivating women to become active and take on leadership roles within their union and community.”
Members and local leaders who attend the IBEW Women’s Conference, June 6-9 in St. Paul, Minn., will have the opportunity to learn more about the emerging committees, among many vital and timely topics on the agenda.
The shift from an informal women’s group to an official one is already making a difference, said Christina Daniels, a Local 48 organizer who serves as recording secretary for her local women’s committee.
“I think we’re heard more, we’re listened to more because we’re official,” Daniels said. “One way that’s just recently changed is the executive board now hears the minutes of our meetings. They hear the things we’re working on, what we want to do, the financial support we need. The lines of communication have opened up.”
To make a committee official at the international level, locals need to apply for an IBEW charter. That primarily involves a letter from a business manager and/or president detailing a committee’s activities and goals.
Earlier this year, Toronto Local 353 became the first to receive a women’s committee charter. Kate Walsh, strategic coordinator for women and NextGen members in the First District, said IBEW women have long been active across Canada.
“The work that our women’s committees have been doing informally has been important to the success of our locals,” Walsh said. “The feedback I get from local leaders is that once they get a sister involved, they’re there at everything – rallies, community events. They’re the first to volunteer, the first to show up.”
Inspired by IBEW’s biennial women’s conference, Canadian women held their own national meeting in Toronto last November. Included in an exhaustive three-day schedule of workshops and panel discussions was a session on “building, growing and sustaining” a women’s committee.
A small but intrigued group of men in local leadership joined more than 100 women at the conference. Walsh was impressed by their interest, recalling what Local 993’s Hilton told her. “He said, ‘I just came here to see what this is all about. After listening to the sisters, you have any support you need to grow this. I am there.’”
In 2015, Hilton’s local hosted a provincial women’s conference that included a presentation about Local 258’s new committee. Chair Nicole Biernaczyk, the local’s assistant business manager and First District representative on the International Women’s Committee, spoke of sisters joining together “in an atmosphere of solidarity.”
“Our goal is to educate, assist, support and empower women in our union,” she said, describing “open and honest discussion to identify some of the barriers we face as women and ways we can work together to help bring those barriers down.”
Women in construction can feel isolated on the job, even as the ranks of trade union sisters are growing. “In the trade you’re so spread out. We never see each other,” said Ann Peek, a journeyman inside wireman and treasurer of the Toledo Local 8 women’s committee. “I see this as an opportunity to network, to get to know each other. We need to know each other.”
Peek started an informal sisters group after returning from the 2016 women’s conference. Local officers welcomed the idea and staff helped send out postcards for a potluck at the union hall that drew 15 women. She said Business Manager Roy Grosswiler was enthusiastic when she asked about making the committee official and wasted no time pursuing a charter.
“He calls me up and he’s just beaming through the phone,” Peek said. “He said, ‘All you need for me is to write a letter and we can get that done today.’”
Through volunteer work and outreach, Peek said Local 8 women are sending a message to women and girls about a career in the trades. “I’ll be walking around town and people will say ‘That’s an awesome T-shirt. Did you borrow it from your husband? Is it your brother’s? Your father’s?’” Peek said, exasperated by assumptions she hears routinely. “I say, ‘No, it’s mine,’ and you get kind of a funny look. ‘You’re an electrician?’ Yeah, I’m an electrician.”
From a practical standpoint, Hilton said inspiring and recruiting more women to the field should be reason enough for any business managers on the fence about women’s committees. He pointed to new mandates in Canada that require contractors on public infrastructure projects to hire more women.
Recruiting women “doubles your pool of potential electricians,” Hilton said, which can lead to more work for all members. “If I can fill those spots without effort because we’ve got women electricians in place, that’s positive for us. That’s selling our brand of labor.”
Daniels, of Local 48, said having an official committee shows women that locals are serious about wanting them on board. “It’s opening doors for us,” she said. “To be recognized officially is a source of pride. It helps us reach out to women.”
Like leaders of other women’s committees, she’s gratified by the practical and moral support of local officers. In Portland, Young has pledged ‘whatever resources they need to be successful,” and said he’s heard the same from other business managers.
Sweeney, who is Local 97’s recording secretary, said Business Manager Ted Skerpon “has been nothing but supportive” of their new committee.
She and her co-chairs started brainstorming ideas after a panel discussion at the 2014 women’s conference in San Antonio. They were especially fired up by what they heard from members of New York Local 3’s Amber Light Society, a women’s group founded 20 years ago.
“We saw how much more we could do for our community and our union by getting together,” Sweeney said. “There was just so much energy. We came back full of vim and vigor to kick off our own committee.”
Locals interested in establishing women’s committees can learn more by contacting IBEW’s Civic and Community Engagement Department. To have IBEW officially recognize a women’s committee, local business managers and/or presidents should make a written request through their IVP. The letter should include details about the committee’s activities.