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Chicago Women in Trades forges new, nontraditional lives
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-01-28

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One of the legacies left when feminist leader Christine Johnson passed way Jan. 23 was an indelible advancement in the attitudes, growth and opportunities for women wishing to follow in her steps and forge a career as a construction machinist or as a plumber, electrician, welder or in any number of trades that had once been viewed as remaining solely within the purview and capabilities of men despite the indisputable and highly skilled success women made of those industries in the United States and Great Britain during both world wars.

"I always was the first woman at any job I went to," Johnson recalled during a 2007 interview for the Chicago Gay History Project. "The more I got pushed, the more I would say 'you're not getting me to leave. I'm not leaving. This is a good job, it pays well and someday I may even be your boss'."

Johnson's steadfast battle against discrimination manifested itself in innumerable actions and associations. One was as a board member for Chicago Women in Trades ( CWIT ).

Founded in 1981, CWIT has been dedicated to the training, support and encouragement of women wishing to enter into and succeed in "nontraditional" or "male-dominated" industries. According to co-founder Lauren Sugerman the organization was formed by a small group of tradeswomen who were forced to deal with an unrelenting denigration and persecution by their co-workers and bosses simply for wishing, as most people do, to excel in their chosen careers.

"It was really important for us to come together to recognize that it wasn't something that we were individually causing," she told Windy City Times. "It was a systemic issue. In 1981, there was a huge solidarity demonstration in Washington, D.C., and we caravanned in three cars of tradeswomen. It was along I-80 that we began to talk about forming Chicago Women in Trades. We had a meeting at my house to formalize that idea."

Thirty-four years later, CWIT held an orientation Jan. 21 for women thinking about careers in the skilled construction or manufacturing trades at its multifaceted office and workshop complex located in a massive warehouse on the city's West-Side.

Attendance was standing-room only. More than 350 women of all races and covering a wide age range—some with their children in tow—crowded into a vast workshop replete with facilities and learning projects designed to open the doors to the tools and skills needed in the hitherto unseen worlds belonging to carpenters, electricians and plumbers among many others.

The atmosphere was that of an enthusiastic revival as CWIT staff members Linda Hannah and Pamyla Berryhill talked the women through the application process and requirements to join each of the organization's two available training programs in technical opportunities and welding. Both Hannah and Berryhill led the orientation with ardent enthusiasm, energetic persuasion and reassurance but also some emphatic quid pro quos. For example, applicants needed to have a driver license and be prepared to submit to a drug test.

Thus not all of the women would be selected. Berryhill told Windy City Times that CWIT hopes to start up to 35 women in the technical opportunities program, while the welding program is open on a rotating basis.

"We do an aptitude test, physical assessment and an interview," she said. "We need to see who is a good fit for the program. If you just want to rehab your house, this isn't going to work for you. This is strictly for people who want a career. But we like to assess everyone so we can look at them on an individual basis. They may have the drive and the passion and we can work with that."

A perfect illustration of that drive and passion was found in the line of working tradeswomen who stood in front of the applicants and "stepped forward" to declare personal details of their lives whether as single parents or even having had a criminal background.

Also available to the applicants were representatives from local trade unions who sat at desks lined with information.

Adam Sutter of the Pipefitters Local 597 told Windy City Times that there has been an uptake in applications of women into the trade and acceptance of them into apprenticeship. "We actively recruit women," he said. "There's that misconception that the trades are a man's world. We are here to show our support and make sure that women know they can absolutely do this as well as a guy can and we want them to come and actively apply."

Sutter added that a first year pipefitter apprentice makes $18.40 per hour—a figure which increases annually. "After five years when they become a journeyman, they'll make 46 bucks an hour which comes out to 92 grand a year before overtime so they have the potential to make six figures," he said.

CWIT and the tradeswomen who are a part of and have benefitted from the organization's work have come a long way together.

When Sugerman co-founded CWIT, she was an elevator constructor. "I started [that work] in January 1980," she recalled. "I hadn't graduated college and I was working as a translator for the federal government making four-something an hour. I was taking a training program with the Chicago Urban League, looking to get into any kind of job that had a union attached to it because I knew I could get good wages. I didn't know about elevator constructors, but it made $7.43 an hour and I jumped at that. But then I was sent to interview with the superintendent and he said to me 'you don't really want this job. It's too dangerous for a girl, too dirty, you're not going to like were you have to go.' He basically did a dis-interview. The only reason I got the job was because of the Affirmative Action Laws that extended requirements to women in construction."

She spent the next five years surviving some extraordinarily bad days on the job. "It was rough," she said. "I had some good co-workers and I had some who didn't want to see me there. The environment was just not accepting of a woman. There was a considerable amount of sexual harassment and often benign neglect—a shunning to menial assignments not really having a chance to learn my trade. I worked around graffiti that had my name in it and sexual innuendos. I would enter an elevator and guys would be telling rape jokes."

Despite the better salary, the isolation Sugerman felt was daunting. She said that an invitation to a pot-luck dinner of women carpenters was life-changing. "It was such a relief to hear other women tell their stories, to recognize that we were all experiencing the same thing," she remembered.

In 1982, CWIT began to see a pattern of women not being hired in the trades. "We tried a strategy of fighting back on the basis of sex discrimination, but we couldn't muster enough documentation as evidence," Sugerman said. "But we got connected to lawyers and they encouraged us to find other ways to fight back."

`So Sugerman stated that they took on discrimination in the apprenticeship training programs at the 11-acre Washburne Trade School complex in Little Village that were occurring at the time. "There was one female bathroom, no female teachers no female administrative staff and teachers would feel free to call women up in front of the class and ask for a kiss," she recalled. "It was just a degrading experience so we filed a sex discrimination complaint with the US Department of Education. It was investigated for two years and all of our charges were substantiated."

In 1986, fed up with her hostile work environment, Sugerman took a leave of absence. "I fell into the job [of Executive Director] with Chicago Women in Trades," she said. "It became clear that we had the ideas and the resources because we knew what women would respond to in terms of getting interested in these jobs."

She remained with the organization for 23 years, eventually moving on to a position with Wider Opportunities for Women. Staff turnover at CWIT is practically non-existent. So when Sugerman arrived for the orientation, the feeling was akin to a family reunion with not only staff and board members but the many women on hand who had benefitted from the organization's services and the support of each other.

What started as a small group of women now touches hundreds and—according to current Executive Director Jayne Vellinga—maintains a budget of close to 1 million dollars.

"When I talk to women now, I think we made a difference and times have changed," Johnson had said in 2007 interview.

When the women selected at orientation finish CWIT's training programs, they will enter into apprenticeship in one of the trades available and, from there, a career that will not only change their lives but the face and perception of the American trade-worker.

Sat at one of the orientation desks was John Retondo—an instructor for the Chicago Labor Training and Apprentice Fund. He told Windy City Times that the numbers of women in the construction industry are growing. "It's very encouraging," he said. "It's great for the economy, great for the union. These women do exactly the same work [as men] for the same pay and the same benefits."

Asked how many women from CWIT's programs he would accept into apprenticeship, Retondo replied "we'll take them all. It'd be great for everyone."

Next week, two tradeswomen talk about their lives and careers.

For more information about Chicago Women in Trades, visit www.chicagowomenintrades.org .


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