Michael Theriault headshot

I've said it before: If more than half the population has little representation among us, we sacrifice a prime source both of future workers and of political support for us and our work.

We need more women in our ranks.

Affirmative action lies in disrepute in some quarters but served a good while to compel efforts by both employers and apprenticeships to bring women into the Trades. Its prohibition by Proposition 209 in 1996 obliges us now to seek other means of addressing our need. Several are available. The San Francisco Building Trades Council may not be able to employ any of them directly, but it can advocate or coordinate them.

One I myself have long advocated is establishment of childcare programs with construction hours. Most childcare programs accept children only after many of us start commutes. If return commutes go long, or if we work overtime, we pay expensive penalties for picking up kids late. To succeed in the Trades, single mothers need childcare that suits these realities. So do many of the rest of us; when I was running overtime work in Silicon Valley and jammed in return commutes to the City while my wife was in classes at Cal, I often blew the deadline to pick my sons up from childcare without penalty. Programs that scale payment to income, so that first-period apprentices pay a minimum and journeylevel workers full boat, would be ideal.

The Council cannot establish these programs itself. We have neither the staff nor the funds. We can push public agencies and major private developers to work with us to create them.

The Iron Workers, having listened at a Women in the Trades conference, recently instituted a paid maternity leave policy. Other Trades should follow. The Council should not hesitate to prod them.

Anti-harassment training should be standard in apprenticeship and encouraged for journeylevel retraining. Employers should require it with any formal safety training. Steward classes should train for handling harassment claims. The Council can't make these things happen. It can, however, remind its affiliated unions that its work on their behalf becomes much harder if they don't.

Recruitment programs targeting women and girls should be continued and expanded. One vehicle for these I've advocated in all my time in this office is propagation of school shop programs. We should enlighten counselors and teachers, not just in high schools, but down through middle schools, in the real opportunities for girls in our Trades and the value for them of shop programs. The Council has already engaged with the San Francisco Unified School District to establish a shop program using our national curriculum. We've coordinated presentations to counselors. We've poured the foundation for a great structure. Let's keep building.

I have also advocated mentorship programs for communities underrepresented in the Trades. Among us, women are the most underrepresented community. Such organizations as Tradeswomen Inc. already provide mentorship. Our support for them should continue but does not absolve our affiliated unions from an obligation to make their own efforts. Again, we can remind them: We know you stand for women, but the more you can support them, the more effectively we can work on your behalf.

The next point is delicate, but my conversations with Tradeswomen have convinced me it must be addressed.

The Trades in recent decades have organized very successfully among immigrants. Many immigrants come from cultures in which women have not gained even the sliver of participation in Trades work that they've achieved here. In some ways, then, one of our real successes has worked against one of our real efforts.

This needn't be so. I have pushed for the Council to seek resources for educational programs. Some could be tailored to make the case through other cultures and languages for women in the Trades.

I do not mean by this to blame immigrant cultures for our shortcomings. Anyone in the Trades or out must admit that we are on the receiving end of an American culture that does not point women our way. In many a Saturday stroll through the Alemany Farmers' Market I've seen little girls who have dressed themselves as "princesses," in gauze skirts, spangled t-shirts, even tiaras.

For all the heroism of girls in recent popular culture, we haven't seen them even glance at us. Princesses might save humanity from evil, but they don't build.

Imagine other tales.

Winters sever two villages either side of a mountain. Little Gilles can't see his beloved grandmother. Old Alphonse can't visit brother Alaric, who lies abed near death. Young Thérèse assembles a crew and as Thérèse the Tunneler reunites families.

The hamlet's well goes dry. Mayor Festus and his men, digging hole after hole, find nothing. Debbie Dozerdriver, Lottie Laborer, and Patty Plumber look at the distant hills, grab tools, and bring water down into every cottage.

I'll clearly never win a best screenplay Oscar, but we can hope that others will write examples showing little girls they can build the world.

Then maybe at the Market I'll see little girls wearing belts of plastic tools, and I'll know we're finally where we need to be.

Organized Labor


Sign Up Now


Go to top