Joyce Collier likes to stand back from a day’s work and see an empty space filled with something solid. She feels pride that it was her hands and her skill that put it there. But for the past five years, instead of plying her trade as a plumber, she’s been left to tend the fire and clean the kitchen.
Literally. This winter, Collier spent her workdays watching over space heaters, checking fire exits and cleaning up after tradesmen on their work sites. But it was better than having no job at all. Even though she qualified as a certified plumber from a five-year union apprenticeship in 1999, for the past half-decade she has rarely worked more than four months of each year.
The last time Collier checked, of the 21 women in her union, Plumber’s Union Local 1, only six were employed using their trades. (Another six are in apprenticeships.) Women make up less than 1 percent of the 5,700 members in her union, and they have an unemployment rate of 60 percent. According to a business agent with Plumber’s Local 1, the union’s unemployment rate as a whole is about 3.5 percent.
Chronic unemployment has led many women to leave the trades altogether. Collier has compiled records showing that from 1989 to 2004 the number of women in her union fell from 56 to 21, as they “lost their books” when they fell behind on union dues. They couldn’t afford their dues because they weren’t getting work.
Carlyne Montgomery was one of them. After she qualified in 1995 following her apprenticeship, Montgomery would call her union delegate every day to look for work. She says she found herself continually passed over for jobs. “You have to know somebody to work,” she explains.
It’s not just the plumbers. Collier is a member of Sisters in the Trades, a group of more than 200 tradeswomen who are beginning to organize for equal treatment. In addition to plumbers, the group represents laborers, carpenters, sheetmetal workers, painters and teamsters.
“It is definitely at least three or four times harder to be a woman in this industry than it is to be black,” says Lavon Chambers, a field representative with the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust. “What would be easier, to tell all of your 30 or 40 guys not to sexually harass, or not to hire a woman?”
In his State of the City speech in January, Mayor Bloomberg announced a new Commission on Construction Opportunity to tackle discrimination in the building trades. With the city on the brink of billions of dollars in new construction, Bloomberg pledged to rally developers, contractors, union representatives and politicians to help ensure that women and people of color have access to the estimated 230,000 new jobs that will come with the redevelopment of Manhattan’s West Side and other neighborhoods.
The trouble is, discrimination is so entrenched that it’s hard to know where to start. Everyone agrees that as more women come into the industry it will change. But it’s a catch-22: More tradeswomen will dilute the sexism, but sexism is preventing women from getting a foothold.
There is a “revolving door,” says Francoise Jacobsohn, a project manager for Legal Momentum’s Women Rebuild project. “As fast as they come in, they leave again.” The atmosphere on site is often so hostile, she says, that women who do get employed often leave quickly afterwards.
Continual verbal abuse was only the start of it for Collier. She describes instances where workers groped her and undressed in front of her. She has often been forced to share the same rest huts where the men change their clothes before and after work. When Collier asked the men to warn her so she could leave before they undressed, they ignored the request.
“Do me a favor: If you’re going to change into your street clothes, give me the same respect that you’d want all these men to give your mother, sister or daughter,” she told them. “And one guy just went right ahead and dropped his pants.” This treatment, she says, went on for two months on one site. “I’ve left plenty of jobs crying, and told the foreman I was sick because of what was happening,” says Collier.
The trade group representing employers doesn’t dispute that there are few women in the construction business. “I have not ever heard that contractors discriminate on the basis of sex,” said Francis X. McArdle, managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York. “I think the biggest question is the extent to which [women] apply into apprenticeship programs and are accepted.”
Applicants’ qualifications are an issue, agrees Anne Rascon, executive director of Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), which does preapprenticeship training. She gets more applicants for those programs than there are spaces, but many of them are prevented from enrolling because they lack high school diplomas. “Not having a GED is paramount,” says Rascon. “There are a lot of women who don’t have ninth grade reading or math skills.” The same is often true for men, but with so few women in the trades, every obstacle has a disproportionate impact.
Women continue to show massive interest in apprenticeships, the first step toward construction careers. Last March, in an event tied to the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site, more than 700 women bottlenecked the stairs of Pace University to learn about careers in construction and watch half a dozen female plumbers, electricians and carpenters plying their skills on trade-show mock-ups.
Federal law is supposed to offer some assurances for female construction workers. A 1978 executive order requires contractors and subcontractors on projects receiving federal funds to make “best faith efforts” to ensure 6.9 percent of hours are worked by women. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) is charged with enforcement.
Last year, OFCCP did not carry out a single compliance evaluation of any construction contractor in New York. Over the past five years, it carried out 134 in New York City. But no local case has been brought to litigation in the past 10 years, according to an OFCCP source.
And although OFCCP performs random audits and responds to complaints, it does not track the number of women unless a contractor has been selected for audit. Neither does the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the City Commission on Human Rights or the Department of Labor.
Following a month of phone calls from City Limits, the State Department of Transportation, a major recipient of federal funds, was unable to say how many women were working on any of four current highway projects–9A on the West Side, the Bruckner Expressway, the FDR Drive or the Staten Island Expressway. “I personally have never been asked in three years to put these numbers together,” says agency spokeswoman Lisa Kuhner.
For contractors that receive money solely from city or state agencies, there is even less oversight. Between 2002 and 2004, Collier unsuccessfully “shaped” (applied for work on site, rather than through her union) the $2 billion upgrade of the Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Brooklyn six times. She says that on only one occasion did she see another woman on site. According to a construction manager at Newtown Creek, there are currently around 800 workers, of whom about 20 are women.
A DEP spokesman said that the agency has no hiring goals, and averred that the project does not receive any federal funding.
So what are unions doing about it? Not a lot, say advocates. Collier has even brought an anti-discrimination case against Plumbers Local 1. Her complaint alleges that the union’s referral process, in which it acts as a mediator between workers and contractors, is biased and does not put women forward for jobs as often as men.
Collier brought her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board and the New York State Attorney General. Both the EEOC and the NLRB ruled in favor of her union.
In a letter explaining its ruling, the NLRB said, “A union operating a non-exclusive referral service like the one here owes no duty of fair representation in connection with its operation…. Accordingly, even assuming that the union did discriminate against you and others in the referral process, it owed no duty of fair representation.” In other words, because the union is not the only means by which its members find work, if it chooses to discriminate, it is not a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
“They lost. They have no case,” says Dudley Kinsley, a business agent with Local 1. Though the union has an equal opportunity policy, Kinsley declined to provide information on it.
Labor insiders say the real obstacle presented by the unions is one of neglect and intransigence, rather than active obstruction. The unions “could tell the contractors that we’re not going to tolerate this, but they don’t,” says Jane LaTour, author of Sisters in the Brotherhood, a book about women in New York’s construction industry. Tradesmen often see hazing and tough humor as part and parcel of working in the trades; as apprentices, many had rough treatment themselves.
Some unions, including those representing carpenters, laborers and the sheet-metal workers, are starting to try to better accommodate women. Each has a women’s committee that works to organize female construction workers and provide them with support services. The committees provide mentors, announce job prospects, and host guest speakers on everything from coping with sexual harassment to credit card debt. Unions also provide social workers to help women and minorities gain access to child care and other support services. “We believe that women need to get organized, to get involved in the union,” says Elly Spicer of the New York and Vicinity Carpenters Labor Management Corporation. Just over 1 percent of the carpenters are women. “We are at the beginning of the process, not the end,” she adds. “We have a long way to go.”
It remains to be seen how much help they’ll get from the Bloomberg administration. The 34-member Commission on Construction Opportunity, which includes seven city agency heads, had its first meeting in March and has yet to discuss any specific measures. Advocates say a crucial first step would be to start tracking the number of women hired.
Right now, Collier hasn’t been hired anywhere–she was laid off from her heater duty job in March. After 11 years as a plumber, she has accrued six years worth of pension contributions. If she gets injured now, she says, she will have $400 a month to live on. She has no health coverage. “I’m struggling just to keep my head above water, and I can name a lot who are going through the same thing,” she says.
Why doesn’t she give it up?
“Because I have invested so much time in it and because I like plumbing,” she says. “I like working with my hands.”