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Where are the AFL Women?

Sister Mary Kenney O’Sullivan was the first female organizer of the AFL in 1888. She lasted 5 months before having a falling out with Gompers. Use the link below to read her bio. You will notice strong parallels of the male leaders back then to today.

Approximately 20 years ago the NABTU (North America’s Building e Unions) started to address the shortages of women & people of color in the trades. Why?

Primarily, because the low number of women and people of color in the trades was emerging as a substantial public relations nightmare. Additionally, huge numbers of jobs, both public and private, demanded women and people of color to fill out the shortages of workers with skills (even back then) and to comply with laws and the EEOC.

At that time, women comprised approximately 3% of the unionized trades’ workforce according to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Today, women represent approximately 12% of the TOTAL construction workforce, with only a tad over 4% being on the union side of the Building Trades. The number of women on the non-union side has marginally improved too, which makes sense since 88% of the total construction workforce is non-union.

The difference between 3% & 4% on the union trades side is statistically moot. Improvement? Yes, but movement over 20 years? Terrible track record! Why?

All the buzz these days is around DEI (Diversity Equity & Inclusion). Everyone has an opinion on how these strategies look and are developed. Perhaps take a look at the DEI progress made by the Armed Forces. Those programs aren’t perfect, but they’ve made significant strides in broader opportunities for women and people of color.

Trends also appear to have demonstrated that DEI GENERALLY improves the bottom line of a BUSINESS!     And the trades’ senior “guys” unrelentingly continue to think about major issues facing UNIONS in business terms. While we’ve seen unions outside of the trades adopt DEI programs, the trades aren’t demonstrating any substantial & sustainable progress on DEI.  Why?

In the last 50 years, unions’ strategies to improve market share have focused on TRAINING programs – in spite of the fact that EVERY measurable number has demonstrated conclusively that this myopic focus on training has not achieved the goal. So, why would anyone expect that union leadership would change their approach and adapt new, effective strategies based on DEI?

Based on historical experience, it’s logical to expect that the trades’ version of DEI will include notable talking heads to create authority and conduct meetings that go on forever, and ever… Oh, and conduct studies, lots of them, relying on consultant “experts” to define the issues and present solutions.  Respectfully to the sisterhood – who knows the obstacles and impediments to improvement better than the rank & file? And who can drive solutions in the field tailored to the membership’s growth better than the rank & file?  LEAVE all the infighting at the door of the convention and turn your energies to solutions pointing that energy outward. Debate with passion, but “get ‘er done” and take it to the field. Issues such as childcare, maternity leave, family benefits, training, equitable pay, etc., are all important considerations, right? Yes! Is that enough? No! 

No one knows the above listed issue as they relate to working in the skilled trades better than women. But, take a look at most pictures of the Sisterhood coming together to discuss these very important issues at meetings and conventions. What do you see? White guys in the picture. These are not benign photo ops, but rather they are staged reminders of who is in charge – mostly old senior trades leaders, again mostly white men who are not so subtly influencing and paying for how a DEI forum discusses the issues.

Women may want to take a page from Hispanics in union construction who historically took their cue from Irish immigrants. Both groups bulldogged their way into sizable numbers & representation in the trades.

Women in the trades have a far greater hurdle. The “good old boys” are going out of their way to keep women out of the organizing ranks or controlling them similar to the environment of 1888.

Really? Well, that’s Labor Rising’s experience.  We have trained 658 organizers,” marketing” reps & recruiters across North America over 12 years. Out of the 658, only 27 have been women – that’s it! 19 of the 27 were assigned to community relations and DEI roles by design. These women wanted to be organizers but were steered into other roles that, while important, are NOT organizers!

In addition – I was a structural teacher for the Ironworkers and had the first 9 women in class back in the 90’s. It would take to approximately 2010 and longer for women to show up in organizing (just a few), community outreach and now DEI officers in the trades.

DEI is very important; however, having near zero women organizers translates directly into near zero women in the trades!

Polls show that workers are increasingly willing to consider unions in the workplace again. Humor me – which unions lead the way in pushing real membership numbers higher? The top tier of unions that have increased membership are mostly run by women. Not in any order: SEIU, AFT (teachers), NNU (nurses), Flight Attendants, Starbucks, Apple, etc. Liz Shuler is the President of the AFL-CIO. Want more? Have some fun and Google notable women in labor history.

There is a strong argument to be made that if the WTUL (Women’s Trade Union League), founded by Mary Kenney O’ Sullivan in 1903, didn’t show up when they did, the giant business conglomerates would have nixed most of the unions that were flailing at the time, including the AFL. The irony here is that if Gompers did not fire Sister Mary in 88, she would not have had the time to build the WTUL to keep the AFL and several other unions in the fight. Sister Mary proved to be remarkably successful in uniting women from all classes to work toward better, fairer working conditions. Kind of sounds like an objective of true DEI programs working hand-in-hand with organizing efforts.

The senior white guys leading the building trades unions WILL NOT give power to anyone – least of all women in the organizing ranks. Can you imagine them dealing with Sister Mary? The “good ole boys” work hard to assign the few women we have to positions that may be more window dressing than taking advantage of their passion, commitment and abilities that could lend to a real movement in the trenches as organizers.   

In fact, we don’t believe women organizers would tolerate the sheer BS in how the trades “ORGANIZE” today! An organizer’s entire mission is to get management to sign a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) using a full playbook of concerted activities. Go ahead and say NO to a women organizer – good luck with that. None of these comments are intended to be pejorative. They’ve proven to be historically true and continue to be so in the unions that have a real balance and diversity of organizers in the field! The most powerful title in all of labor is ORGANIZER – not BM or International President! The senior trades officers have worked hard to remove that title and the hard-core tactics used since the mid 70’s. BY DESIGN.

Women, far more than the trades’ senior officers, understand the power of a MOVEMENT. They will not sell out to our International Presidents, who themselves roll over to the management alliances and just kiss the ring of management!

Every organizer should know that when conducting home visits, if the spouse does not trust and collaborate with their partner’s decision to join the union, that worker typically would not be a good union member. Transactional recruitment is exactly that – transactional. The building trades in a word.   Labor Rising has developed a cyber-organizing platform to work with scores of non-union workers at the same time. Women by-and-large ask the bread & butter questions on how being organized works. They don’t want rah-rah BS, and if you lie – you’re done as an organizer with that family and their entire sphere of influence.

We can talk union and skills ad nauseam, which is mostly recruitment. However, the best union members earned their way into a union one way or another – with perhaps the scars to prove it. Giving a union card out seldom creates a bond of Brothers & Sisters. It is a transactional payday for as long as it lasts. Organizing, on the other hand, will scare both our Internationals Presidents and the management alliances that they serve. So, take those same organizing skills and run over the current IP’s at convention. They are businessmen serving a business interest and replace them with those that assert workers rights and create more than enough of labor unrest on and off the job to compel management to sign a CBA!

For a long time, organizer jobs were few, far between and mostly handed out in a very selective manner. More recently, most of the trades have open slots and are actually looking for organizers’ resumes. So, activist sisters, call our bluff. Apply for all organizers’ jobs you find and see how you are put off, derailed, or alternatively put into a status quo position. That’s your first hurdle, but doable. Second hurdle is the piss poor training you get to burn you out and ensure you lose. BY DESIGN.

In our next Labor Rising blogs, we will provide the syllabus of how an organizer needs to be trained. Perhaps you will come to learn that running around and spinning your wheels has a point to it, IF YOU ARE THE DIRECTOR OF ORGANIZING, which is to keep us busy and lose far more than we win.

NABTU: Labor Rising has challenged you before and we will challenge you with this – let the 27 women we have worked with “ORGANIZE”! We’ll go out of existence if they fail. Are you willing to take the challenge and watch them win? 

Sisters: The future of the trades rests with you. The pensions, benefits, diversity and advancing workers’ rights, while reasserting middle class values of fairness, are on you – AGAIN!

Step into battle.

Don’t count on us guys to break the status quo that has existed for 50 + years. We show no evidence of being effective in solid numbers to organize (because of inadequate training), Work 2 Rule, or show any signs of civil disobedience at convention or agents’ meetings or other venues.

But we do tell anyone who listens how badass unions are, while not having earned any street cred like our FOUNDERS did! None. We live in a fantasy land of our own choosing.

“if you see a good fight sister – get in it”

Danny L Caliendo


Labor Rising

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