Ironworker Women: Our Members' Stories
“Hell yeah – they underestimated me as a female worker! I was the ONLY woman on ANY jobsite for my first 10 years in construction, working in North Dakota, Montana and then on to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I worked from 1980-1989. I FINALLY met other women in SF about 1982… not on a jobsite, but at the union hall.”
Throughout her twenty-five year career, Jan fought tirelessly to gain respect in a career where she was not fully accepted; she fought, and she won.
Jan’s course began in the newspaper industry, where she fostered her talents for writing and storytelling. She later went on to work various office jobs, but was unsatisfied with the low pay, particularly once she became a single mother. One day, while working in an office of a construction crew, “the foreman came in and said they were going to start the underground job on Monday. I spoke up and said, ‘How much does it pay to be in the ditch?’ He told me the wage, and I said, ‘I’m going to work in the ditch!’ It paid better than the office job. I said, ‘I’ll be out in the ditch on Monday,’ and I was!”
After signing up for the apprenticeship program in 1976, Jan’s journey as an ironworker took flight. “The first crew I was on was with fifty-six Native Americans and they stuck me in a corner by myself. The guys were very competitive. They liked to race to see who could get to the end of the rebar mat first. Within the first month on the job, I was competing with them – and I was winning!”
Jan’s fiery personality quickly gained her notoriety and respect within the trade. “In 1983 I came home to North Dakota for a family reunion and ended up working on a coal gasification plant near Beulah with 4,300 people. I was the only woman! But men that I knew from my apprenticeship watched out for me on that job. If some guys tried to mess with me, they would say ‘she’ll knock you flat on your ass!’ I was a 6’3 redhead, with a temper to match. Word got around the job very quick not to mess with me!”
Her resolve for justice led Jan to spark positive change within the industry. While working in San Francisco in the 1980s, Jan successfully increased female involvement in the ironworkers’ apprenticeship program. “I started bugging the apprentice coordinator to get more women in. He didn’t like women in the trades; he thought women should be home and pregnant, and boy did I give him an earful! I demanded an apology! I gave him a talking to and he DID begin accepting women in the apprenticeship.” Jan’s fight for female accommodation allowed her daughter to enter the San Francisco apprenticeship program in 1983. “I was working on the Golden Gate Bridge and she was working on cable car renovations. We were renovating historical landmarks in San Francisco.”
In addition to her career as an ironworker, Jan has also found success as a photographer. “I started being a photographer when I was nine, and it’s a pretty rare day when I don’t have a camera in my hands, even when I was an ironworker. I carried a notebook and a camera at work and I wrote down and took pictures of safety issues on site. I had a dual career my entire life. Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve taken pictures of the jobsite and written stories about the people and places that I’ve worked.”
Jan’s own story is one of female empowerment and determination in the face of discrimination. She used her conviction and creativity to promote justice within her trade, becoming a mentor and leader for young tradeswomen. After a twenty-five year career in the trade industry, Jan is now focusing on her creative endeavors. She photographs musicians and artists in her new home near Charlotte, N.C., and is currently proposing to National Geographic a spread comparing photographs she took while traveling in Russia in 1987 with photographs taken today showing what has changed.
Beth “Glo” Beattie
“I would absolutely recommend the trades to women looking for a job option. It is definitely a viable career. Look at me: I’m doing it! The world has to change to fit us in!” says Beth “Glo” Beattie, an ironworker from Florida, who now lives in Minnesota.
Glo’s story demonstrates the importance of mentorship and a strong community for tradeswomen. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, her early life was characterized by traditional gender roles, though she thinks she developed her strong work ethic from her father and stepmother, who always had jobs and worked hard to raise six children. Glo also recalls admiring her stepsister’s father, a mechanic who rode motorcycles and was skilled at fixing things. Nevertheless, she entered the University of Wisconsin-Superior with plans to become a teacher. Like many college students, however, Glo questioned her career choice and decided to do something totally different.
She first considered a career in the trades on the advice of a friend’s husband. “He was an ironworker and he said to me, ‘if you’re going work your ass off, why don’t you get a job where you get paid well for it and get some benefits?’” She accepted his suggestion and enrolled in an ironworkers’ apprenticeship program in Minnesota, working during the day and attending classes at night. She quickly learned, however, that becoming an ironworker would be no easy feat, especially for a woman. “On the first day of class, the instructor said, ‘look around the classroom, because the person on either your left or your right is not going to graduate with you.’ Then, the guy next to me leaned over and said, ‘well I know who that’s going to be!’ It pissed me off and it definitely pushed me to make it to the end. But that guy didn’t make it to the end! We started with 42 people and only 14 graduated. I was the only woman.”
As her career began, Glo continued to notice a lack of accommodation for women in the industry. Gloves and other safety gear were not available in women’s sizes, for example. Some workers even refused to work with Glo simply because she was a woman.
Glo explains that the national community of tradeswomen has provided excellent support to help her persevere during moments of discrimination. “I would not still be an ironworker if it wasn’t for the friends I’ve made at the Women Building the Nation conference. This year will be my fourth year going and I have made friends that I know I can call at any time. They may live in California, or Canada, but if something happened at work, I can call or text them anytime and tell them my story. A lot of them are a little older than me, so they have experienced some of the same things and tell me what they have done, or they just listen and sympathize. I don’t know if I would have made it, or if I would be as happy or successful as I am, without these women.”
Just as the tradeswomen conference has done for her, Glo hopes to provide support and mentorship to young women beginning their careers in the trades. Along with her friend Lindzi Campbell, a captain of the fire department in Superior Wisconsin, Glo has established a support group called Rosie’s Social Club. “We started as a way for women who work in male dominated trades to meet each other, discuss issues at work, maybe drink some beer. I’m hoping for our group to have the same feeling of support you get at the Women Building the Nation Conference.” In addition to Rosie’s Social Club, Glo is reaching out in other ways as well, including speaking at a technical college in Wisconsin and being interviewed by the University of Minnesota in Duluth. She hopes to mentor young apprentices in order to help prepare them for the trades.
Despite daily challenges, Glo is thrilled with her career. As a member of the Iron Worker Local 512, her salary has allowed her to buy a house and pursue her passion for travel. “I just went to Ireland, Scotland, and England in October, and I’ve been to Mexico many times.”
The Story of Lisa Lockhart
Lisa Lockhart has witnessed a lot of change during the 26 years since she first entered an ironworker apprentice program. For one thing, Lockhart’s skills at ironwork have refined to such a degree that she now holds multiple welding certifications. She now is an expert in worksite safety – and she was recently elected vice president at Local Union 112 in Peoria, Ill.
In addition, similar to any skilled-trades worker who has forged ahead in their craft for 20-plus years, Lockhart has witnessed her share of ups and downs in the construction industry. She has devised personal strategies for success, however, enabling Lockhart to stay employed and healthy in an occupation that is among the toughest in world.
Learning then mastering the requirements of iron work requires focus, determination, and mental and physical strength. “I was always kind of an optical illusion: I mean, I’m five feet five inches tall and weighed about 125 pounds when I started but I have always been extremely strong for my size,” says Lockhart.
It is work that she loves, which is why Lockhart proudly continues in the trade.
Now, she is among 26 iron workers from the Ironworkers Union who received a scholarship to attend the Fourth Annual Women Building California and the Nation, a leading annual conference focused on women in skilled-trades. Co-sponsored by the International Association of Iron Workers and IMPACT, the scholarships cover all travel expenses for recipients, as well as registration fees for the conference (April 25-27, 2014), in Sacramento, Calif. The conference agenda is jam-packed with panels and sessions focused on relevant construction industry issues, including safety and training best-practices, but also topics of particular interest to women in the skilled trades.
“I was very grateful to be selected for the scholarship,” Lockhart said. She had wanted to attend the conference, conducted by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, last year but the cost was prohibitive. “These kinds of professional gatherings are important yet it isn’t always the case that there is available support that would allow me to attend,” Lockhart said.
She is among more than 100 women iron workers from the U.S. and Canada attending the conference, and Lockhart believes the opportunity to meet and learn from women in other skilled trades occupations such as electrical or carpentry will allow her to continue improving her skills as an iron worker.
“When people find out I’m an iron worker for the first time they’re like, “WHAT?!,” Lockhart said, laughing. “Some of them can’t believe it…but most people think it is pretty cool.”
Anna Bromley, Ironworker
At age 15, Anna Bromley started working at one of the world’s largest retail corporations. She grilled burgers, packaged fries, and filled soda cups for thousands of customers day after day. Before she knew it, she had spent 20 years at the company, working for various franchises the Pacific Northwest, her home region. And while Bromley had progressed within the company– rising to the position of a store manager by the time she reached her 30s – she felt stuck.
“After doing that kind of work for so many years, I decided I really wanted to do something more with my life,” said Bromley, of Portland, Ore. “I wanted to do something that would make a mark.” The restaurant work also left Bromley feeling exploited: Despite the many years of service, the long hours and dedication to customer needs, Bromley was required to pay nearly $200 per month from her own pocket for health benefits.
At the end of each month, she had no money for savings, and seemed to be on a drab treadmill to Nowheresville. But, thanks to the encouragement of a long-time family friend who is an ironworker, Bromley found the will to get off the fast-food worker treadmill. With her friend’s guidance, and with the input of an uncle who is a retired ironworker, she made her way to a local nonprofit organization that focuses on skilled-trades job training, and signed up for a pre-apprenticeship course.
“I had researched ironworking after my friend who is an ironworker talked with me about why he loves the job,” said Bromley. “I picked his brain, and also talked about it a lot with my uncle,” said Bromley. Now, she is a third-year apprentice at Local Union 29 in Portland, and is proud to be part of a trade and a tradition that honors workers – and offers payment enough to allow her to plan for the future.
At first, Bromley found the learning-curve of the apprenticeship somewhat challenging but, “after a month or so, I was doing very well.” She drew upon math skills she had acquired in school, and remained in close contact with her friend, who helped her quickly apply the lessons she received in her classes to “real world” tasks that ironworkers face on jobsites.
Once she was accepted into the apprentice program at Local Union 29, Bromley’s initial job was as a welder’s apprentice, where she started out assigned to Fire Watch duty. “It was all observation, which allowed me to really absorb how the work is done, including how much wire is needed at particular times in a given job, and all the important material and safety concerns,” Bromley said.
In March, Keith Kordenat, Apprenticeship Coordinator at Local Union 29 let her know that she had been nominated to receive a scholarship to attend the Fourth Annual Women Building California and the Nation Conference in Sacramento, CA. It was a welcome surprise, one that further reinforced Bromley’s choice to leave the dead-end job where she’d spent 20 years, and enter an occupation where leadership values her contribution. Even before receiving word of the scholarship, Bromley’s outlook on life and on herself had changed for the better, she said: Now, instead of dreading going to work every day, she springs out of her home each morning and cannot wait to get to the job site.
To her family-members and friends, Bromley’s choice of a new occupation seemed odd, but Bromley did not shrink from the challenge of the work, nor was she deterred by others’ skepticism.
Bromley has earned a welding certificate, and recently wrapped up a job on the Children’s Museum in Portland; she’s confident that her next assignment will be equally fulfilling.
“I made a commitment to ironworking, and I don’t regret it for a second. It was absolutely the right choice,” Bromley said. “I am good at this work, I want to get even better at it. Plus, my co-workers are great, we support each other, and now I am positive the work I do is making a mark.”
My Name is Julie
My name is Julie "Babygirl" Baugh. I started ironworking in 1980. I was a single parent looking for a way to support my daughter. Up to that point I was working on cars with my brother on the side. It helped pay the bills, but I hated getting greasy. I went to a job service and they had a program that paid you to learn a trade. They had so many choices—auto mechanic, industrial painter—but I already knew I hated working on cars and I hated painting. They had secretarial work but I wasn't about that—just couldn't see myself stuck inside shuffling papers instead of outside working with my hands. Then I saw that they had a welding program. I was like, "That's me." It was a 6 month course. I loved it. I mastered all the welding—stainless, aluminum and carbon steel—and graduated in half the time.
Once I completed the welding training, my uncle told me to go put an application in at the Iron Workers Union. I said "What is that?" I knew nothing about unions, so he told me being in the union meant that I could travel all over and meet others in the trade. I liked the sound of that, so I decided to give it a shot. I went to Local Union 601. They said they were not taking applications at that time, but they offered to put me on a "white ticket." I still didn't really know anything about the union, but the work was what I wanted. They put me on a job and I worked on it for 18 months. When I got laid off, I went right back to the union hall. I got the same story about them not taking anyone in right now and this time they didn't have work for me. I went back as often as I could to try to submit my application for membership, but nothing worked. I had to take care of my daughter so I went out and found jobs on my own. I got my first foreman job in 1984 at Hilton Head South Carolina. The contractor I was working for saw potential in me and asked me to run a detail gang. I was so excited I took the job. I loved being a foreman, if for no other reason than the fact that it showed the ironworkers who doubted my skill based solely on my gender that being a woman doesn't have any bearing on our ability to do the job and do it well.
I continued to work on a white ticket whenever I could, and did that for years until, finally in 1997, I was accepted as member of Local Union 601. I wish I knew then what I know now. But in the Deep South and red states they do not promote unions. In those areas the powers that be work hard to keep the good that unions can do for working families a secret. During my years ironworking I had met the business agent for the local, Jim Jorgenson. Jim suggested several times that I should transfer to his local. After thinking it over I decided to go ahead and do it—the work was great and I knew I’d be working in a local where my skill and ability would be appreciated. So in 2003, I transferred to Local 8. And here I am now, 100 percent union. Thirty-one years later, that contractor who gave me my first foreman job is long since gone out of business, but I’m still here doing the work I love.
In February of 2015, I have 35 years of ironwork experience. In my career I have seen and done it all. I've worked on schools, shopping plazas, hotels, refineries and steel mills. My blood & sweat helped build Miller Park, Port Washington, and Lambeau Field and I continue to work as foreman on good jobs. I’ve been asked to be a supervisor, but I don’t think I’d like that job. I want to be in it—not over it.
Because of my experience living and working in the south, I have wanted the opportunity to promote unions there. In an area where good jobs are so difficult to come by, working people need to understand that unions are the way to go. It is so very important that young women—and men!—learn how being part of a trade union like the Ironworkers really can improve not only your pay and working conditions, but the chance of a comfortable retirement as well. I hope the success I have found in my career can inspire those women ironworkers out there to continue to work hard. Ironwork is HARD, especially for women, because we face not only the physical challenge of the job, but the challenge of overcoming gender bias, discrimination and even harassment at times. My advice to them is to just do your job to the best of your ability and prove that you can do the work. For those women just getting in the trade—and even those with some time under their tool belt—attend every union meeting you can. Get involved! Be a source of support for those brothers & sisters around you when they are struggling and they will be there for you when you need them too. And definitely do the upgrades. Get trained in all aspects of the trade. You do that and you’ll find opportunities to advance up the ladder will be there waiting for you.
Dana Shares Her Story
My name is Dana. I am a JIW out of Local 15 (Hartford, Conn.). When I started looking for a career, I wanted something that offered good benefits, and a pension & annuity where I could work outside and with my hands. I found it with the Iron Workers union, so I joined and became an apprentice in January 2006. It's a very physically demanding job that I love. You have to lift heavy steel all day in all weather—sun, rain, snow and wind. In the heat, the steel gets burning hot and in the winter its freezing cold. So yeah, I'm not your normal female—I'm one of the guys—but I guess that's why this career works so well for me. I became a Journeyman in 2011 and I can honestly say this is not a job for your average person. We are the elite. We work all day down in the dirt in the rebar patch or we are the sky cowboys high up—building America's skyline. It's not steady work. It goes up and down, so I bank my money for the slow times when I can't boom out. But there is no better feeling then coming to a jobsite that's a pile of dirt and turning it into a standing building. We get paid to see the best views. We put our blood, sweat and tears into building America. A lot of brothers and sisters have given their lives. When we go to work every day, we hold each other's lives in our hands. It builds a special bond. However, don't be mistaken, just like blood families not everyone gets along.
I was one of five females in my class at punk school and we all graduated. I can't speak for anyone else, but my hall helped me out tremendously. I had two children while an apprentice—Delilah (born January 2, 2009) and Destiny (born September 3, 2010)—it wasn't easy going to school while nursing a baby. Trying to get my welding certs was a challenge. But with help from Local 15, I got them and my book. But they didn't just give me professional help; they gave me personal support too. One of the main reasons I joined the union in 2006 was to make a better future for my family. Because I worked third shift a lot I needed a better job. With help from the hall and the money I earned as a union member, I was able to provide a that future for myself and my family.
My best advice to other women out there looking to get into the trade is to go to work and give it 100%. If you do, you will earn the respect you deserve. This is a worksite, and you need to always dress and act accordingly. We can travel America following the work, but it's not a place for females to find their significant other. We are there to work, and all it takes is one bad female to give us all a bad rep. Everyone wants to go home safe at the end of the day, so never be afraid to admit if there is something you can't do or are unsure about. If you want to succeed you can't expect them to do the work for you, but everyone needs a hand sometimes, even the guys.