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Women in construction: tearing down walls in the building trades



One day while reporting to her job as an elevator constructor, Christina Herzog discovered something near her workbench that had clearly been left for her--a long penis made of pipe caulk.

That was back in 1989 when she was 28 years old and new on the job. She now understands the statue was left as a challenge by one of her male coworkers who resented her presence on the job. She now realizes it was a challenge she failed.

"I picked it up and started running around going, 'Whoever did this, I'm gonna get you.' In retrospect I can see it must have looked pretty funny, and all those guys must have had quite a laugh. I shouldn't have let it get to me. I should have turned the joke around on them. I should have gone up to them and said, 'Excuse me, is this yours?' Or I should have put a sign on it saying, 'Take me home, I'm in love.' But that was then, and I didn't know much."

It's the little things, like knowing when to respond with a joke and when to fight back, that make the difference between a bearable and an unbearable work environment for women construction workers. Their dilemmas and struggles have become the central cause of a campaign led by Chicago Women in Trades, a not-for-profit support and advocacy group that includes carpenters, plumbers, electricians, ironworkers, and asbestos workers.

The group recently launched a program called Worksite 2000 in an attempt to increase the number of women construction workers and to improve their working conditions. They're now working with contractors at four work sites: the Cook County Jail expansion, the McCormick Place expansion, the renovation of the Juvenile Detention Center, and the construction of the new downtown post office.

"Without intervention of someone in authority, like the general contractors, women don't work. And if they do work they get treated very poorly," says Laurie LeBreton, coordinator for Worksite 2000. "Basically, all we're asking is that women be hired and then allowed to do their work in peace."

Women in Trades was formed in 1980 by several tradeswomen, including Lauren Sugerman, now its director. In the beginning most of their energy was spent trying to pressure unions to open their ranks. Since then Women in Trades has become more prominent, but many of the old problems persist.

Even on model sites such as the post office only about 5 or 6 percent of the trades jobs are held by women. And many tradeswomen still complain of harassment. A recent survey of 228 tradeswomen by Women in Trades reveals that 83 percent have heard unwelcome sexual remarks on the job and 57 percent have been touched or asked for sex.

Some observers counter that these statistics are beside the point. Their argument runs: Construction sites are known for their tough, swaggering workers. If women don't like the atmosphere, they shouldn't apply for the jobs.

"It's true that some of our complaints have to do with general working conditions that affect all workers, men as well as women," says Herzog. "For instance, on a lot of sites the toilets are absolutely disgusting. That's not just a women's issue, that's an issue that affects men too."

Other women minimize the problems they've faced. "I've had all kinds of jobs, and this is the best--or at least it pays the best," says Shirley Williams, an electrician. "When I first started I heard some words. There were only 3 women out of 50 workers, and some of the men would tell me, 'This is a man's job.' I didn't let it get to me. When they saw they couldn't get rid of me they accepted me."

Still other women say they would rather work around men. "To me, men are usually more direct," says Laura Nunemaker, a pipe insulator. "If a man doesn't like you he'll usually tell you to your face."

Most women construction workers say they were drawn to the jobs by the pay. Some trades pay as high as $35 an hour, and most apprentices make at least $15 an hour. "That's a lot more than you can make as a waitress," says Williams. "I like the challenge. I like being able to look at some building and say, 'I had a hand in building that.'"

The hardest part of the job can be getting it in the first place. Construction unions are notoriously tough to crack. "You pretty much have to know somebody," says Herzog. She got her break when she was working at a low-paying, nonunion maintenance job. "I was in between things in my life," she says. "I had been in college, but I dropped out 'cause I was burnt out. I wanted to be a writer, but I was sick of being a starving artist. I was tired of being overworked and underpaid and exhausted. I figured, I don't mind doing gofer work if I'm getting a decent wage. I was always doing odd jobs around the place, and one of the union guys said, 'We could use a hard-working girl like you.' They told me where the union headquarters was and who I should talk to when I got there. That was my in."

Herzog began as an apprentice making half the pay of full-fledged union mechanics. "It's a tough apprenticeship," she says. "We're all green when we come off the street. You have to start somewhere and someone has to teach you. And they're tough on you. You're basically an ignoramus, and that's how they treat you. They'll say stuff like, 'What are you, stupid?' Or 'How many times do I have to tell you this, dummy?' We all go through it. That's part of the learning experience."

But gender rivalries are not part of the learning experience for men. "I try to see things as these guys do," says Herzog. "They have been coming to work for a long time grousing about their wives. It's the one safe place they have to talk about their homes. It's their haven. And then a woman comes in, and they feel threatened. They're scared they'll get written up for sexual harassment. They're apologizing to me for cursing. This happens with every job I'm on. I show up and they say, 'Oh God, a woman. Hey guys, better watch what you say or she'll write you up.' At first it bothered me. But now I joke with them. I let most of the stuff roll off.

"It's like being back in high school. We're dealing with something like a teenage mentality. They're usually making stupid jokes, but there's a purpose behind it. They're trying to lighten the stress. It's such a high-stress level. We're always under the gun. We're working way above the ground tearing out the old elevators and installing new ones. A hoist-way can be a very dangerous place. An open hoist-way is the coldest place to be in the winter, because the air's moving through it. But it's the hottest place to be in the summer when the roof is on, because there's no ventilation. I have learned to have a healthy respect for heights. I pray to God I don't get hurt. Some guys are petrified of heights. You see them hyperventilating and profusely sweating. They're called two-story Joes 'cause they can't work above two stories. The old-timers have this attitude that, 'Oh, this is nothing like the old days--in the old days of wooden rails and iron men . . . ' But inside, a lot of these old-timers were cracking. You should see the drinking that went on as guys tried to balance the intense fears and the machismo."

Herzog rises at 4:30 in the morning to be at work by 6:30. She usually punches out at 3:30. "When you see me off the job you wouldn't know what I do. Nine times out of ten I'll be wearing high heels or dresses. I go for manicures. I have my hair done. It gets beaten down by wind, rain, snow, and concrete dust. I go to my hairdresser once every three months.

"I call myself a torchbearer. I'm not a pioneer. There were women who came before me who really had to face a tough situation. I never had a guy drop tools on me to get me out of the business. The women who put up with that are the true pioneers."

A few weeks ago Herzog and about 12 other women construction workers gathered for an after-work rap session sponsored by Women in Trades. Over pizza and pop they began the meeting sounding as impervious to on-the-job pressures as any of their macho male colleagues.

But eventually they let down their defenses. One woman nearly broke down as she described continual sexual harassment by some of her male coworkers.

"You've got to show them that you won't take any of that bull," said Lisa Lopez, a veteran construction laborer.

The woman said she'd tried, but it hadn't worked. Other workers made other suggestions, including taking the matter to court. But the woman said she couldn't do that without facing prolonged litigation, which would make her the butt of even more abuse. After a while it became apparent to many in the room that she might eventually have to quit.

"That was very rough, hearing what she's going through," says Herzog. "I really feel for her. We've come far, but we still have a ways to go."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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