Women in Building Trades ready to ‘kick open doors’

Some 55 women in the skilled construction trades emerged from the first women’s conference held by the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario in Niagara Falls recently saying they were ready to kick open the doors of discrimination in the construction sector.
And two days later, their resolution demanding a seat at the table alongside the all-male executive board members of the Building Trades was passed by delegates attending the annual convention.
The resolution was altered from the one drafted at the Oct. 16 women’s conference — there will initially be a standing committee on women’s issues with a representative invited to attend executive board meetings as a “resource person,” rather than with status as a full board member, for what was explained to be Building Trades constitutional reasons.
But delegates attending the conference and the follow-up convention expressed satisfaction with the progress made over the three days.
“This should have happened 20 years ago,” commented delegate Darren Hogan, a business agent with Teamsters Local 879.
“For a long time people have been talking about what we need to do and there has been no implementation,” said Karen Pullen, an IBEW Local 353 executive who sat on the Building Trades working committee that helped pull the women’s conference together. “At some point someone has to take the bull by the horns and now is the time.”
Building Trades business manager Patrick Dillon worked to bring together the working group and made initial remarks to the women’s conference, noting women represented only 4 per cent of the workers in the building trades.
“You can see the support in this room,” said Dillon after the convention. “The men were pleased and wanted to be welcoming to the women. We need to get that into the hiring halls and the entranceway to apprenticeships. It will pay big dividends in the construction industry in the future.”
The day-long women’s conference was held with no male participants in the room. Morning guest speakers included Arlene Dunn, director of Canada’s Building Trades Union; Blue Coble, Phoenix-based ironworker who is the face of the Dove Beauty Bar “Ironworker” advertising campaign; and Jane McKenna, parliamentary secretary to Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton.
Following the presentations, event facilitator Susan Crossman urged the delegates to discuss problems they encounter in the workplace on a table by table basis, potential plans of action were solicited, surveys of workplace problems were filled in and finally priority recommendations were drawn up to be incorporated into the resolution that would be presented at the Building Trades convention.
As approved by the convention, issues to be addressed by the new women’s committee include:
  • “the establishment of a standardized, mandatory, respectful and inclusive workplace training program for all unionized personnel;
  • “new efforts to recruit, advance and retain women in the trades;
  • “the development of networking, mentorship and capacity-building opportunities for women; and
  • “female representatives to advocate on behalf of other women in challenging situations, whether these are with the union or other women.”
  • “Although things have gotten better, we are nowhere near where they need to be,” Pullen said in an interview. “Most of the wonderful men we work with don’t want that work environment. They don’t like hearing the sexist comments.”
Earlier, during committee deliberations, Pullen told her fellow delegates, “This needs to be a focused committee and an action-based committee.
“Everybody knows we are falling through the cracks. At some point we have to kick the door open.”
Keira Liberte, an ironworker who was also a member of the working group, read a summary of grievances taken from the survey of women’s conference delegates to delegates at the Building Trade convention.
The survey reported “shameful experiences” she said as the Building Trades delegates listened in silence.
Complaints included unwelcome touching, assaults on jobsites, offenders treated unequally, unwelcome comments, unwelcome pressure to date, layoffs after bringing issues forward, comments such as “Stop being so sensitive” and “It must be that time of the month,” feeling unwelcome on jobsites, male workers expressing anger that women are on jobsites, tools stolen, work sabotaged, skills underestimated, not being given challenging work, hesitation telling an employer they were pregnant for fear of being laid off, less training, voices not valued, problems with child care, males saying women have unfair advantages and washrooms located far away from the jobsite.
Pullen said she was not surprised at the diversity of complaints.
“Most people know what the issues are,” she said. “We need to stop sweeping them under the rug and starting to use the laws that are in place already to our advantage.”
Pullen said a women’s committee can be a place where women with workplace issues can have a “soft landing,” as is the case with IBEW’s women’s committee. But she has become a convert to the need for more direct action to achieve equality, such as hiring quotas in collective agreements backed by progressive legislation.
Dunn also advocated for hiring quotas, offering statistics from projects she worked on in Newfoundland and Labrador to back their effectiveness.
“If you look at the Hebron project, we actually achieved between 13 per cent to 24 per cent (women’s participation) depending on the skilled trade so that is pretty significant,” she said. “Because we had that legislation, that foundational base, we built from that and we had the provisions in the collective agreement to make everybody accountable.”
Delegate Courtney Chard, a welder, offered a different take.
“I don’t know what the answers are,” she said.
“A lot of the women want to take legal steps like class-action lawsuits, and you have to have zero tolerance. I am more of a lead-by-example type. Positive reinforcement, getting to apprentices when they are young.”