(WOMENSENEWS)–For women who work in construction–an industry where women’s work force percentage has been stalled at 2.5 percent despite more than 30 years of enormous efforts to open those occupations–national conferences provide a vital lifeline.

Until the weekend of April 29-May 1, there hadn’t been one in a decade.

The long hiatus was broken by the national AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, which agreed in January to co-sponsor California’s annual AFL-BCTD-sponsored statewide conference, and let it serve double duty as the 10th conference for women in the state’s building trades and the first "Women Build the Nation" conference.

Six hundred tradeswomen from across the United States showed up.

For women isolated in their workplaces and unions, the opportunity to make face-to-face connections with their counterparts, gain practical skills, talk strategy and hear information and commitments directly from national leaders was not only invigorating but offered life support.

The most raw moment came at Saturday’s noon plenary, when pioneer electrician Molly Martin, co-founder of the Bay Area’s Tradeswomen, Inc., asked from the stage, "How many of you have been the only woman in your trade on a job?"

Virtually all the hands shot toward the ballroom ceiling.

And then, from the back of the hall, a voice called out, "How many of you have been the only woman of ANY trade on your job?"

Again, most of the hands shot up. And then, carrying the point further, another tradeswoman called out, "How many of you have been the only woman in your local union?" And again, not as many, but still lots of hands rose.

While most women–including the unemployed–paid their own travel expenses to the conference, a few had funding.

A Send-Off

Jenaya Pina Nelson was sent from Boston with funds from Local Union 223 of the Laborers Union and backing from the Massachusetts Tradeswomen’s Association, the grassroots organization she chairs, to represent the organization. She’d been anxious about her first conference, so the group gave her a send-off at my home. Female ironworkers, painters, electricians and plumbers offered advice and good wishes over dinner.

Minutes after her plane landed in Oakland, Calif., Nelson met a sister laborer from Philadelphia and together they found their way from the airport to the conference.

By Saturday night, Nelson and a dozen other laborers were taken to dinner by Patti Devlin, federation liaison to the general president of the Laborers International Union of North America. By the final session, Nelson was onstage with 20 other tradeswomen holding songbooks and power tools, accompanying the Community Women’s Orchestra in June Bonacish’s new composition, "Fanfare for Tradeswomen."

But transforming political realities will take more than an outstanding conference.

Many women, like myself, have been at this for decades. We remember the promise of the 1970s. We experienced firsthand what political will can accomplish: the publicly-financed recruitment, training and monitoring efforts that, had they been sustained for more than a few short years, would have realized and expanded the goals and timetables of the executive orders issued by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. We can list the successful model programs and projects that demonstrate how this occupational segregation could have ended years ago.

Under President Ronald Reagan, federal enforcement was dismantled and paper trails of "good faith efforts" replaced result-oriented affirmative action. No administration since, Democratic or Republican, has had the political courage to ensure fair access to training and employment in construction.

When we gather we name names, remember those we’ve lost and the devastating impact of discrimination borne by tradeswomen and their families: suicides, disproportional unemployment, intentional injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Exclusion from higher-paying occupations like skilled construction is a major reason that women are 33 percent more likely than men to live in poverty. Breaking these barriers matters.

Labor Department Shows Support

It was heartening for tradeswomen to hear Pat Shiu, director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs at the Department of Labor, say publicly, "We know that women can do any job and–when given the opportunity–can exceed and excel. We know that good jobs are union jobs. I am here to tell you that the Department of Labor stands by you and stands with you and we support you."

Speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, Shiu told tradeswomen that taxpayer dollars should never be used to discriminate, that "being a federal contractor is a privilege, not a right."

Tradeswomen hope that regulations being developed by the Labor Department will mean increased hiring goals that target journey-level employment, serious enforcement and consequences for those who undermine civil rights.

AFL-CIO Building Construction Trades Department Secretary-Treasurer Sean McGarvey came from Washington, D.C., to address the conference, signaling serious support from the building trades unions he represents.

Here again, tradeswomen hope this will translate into new policies and practices in their unions that will identify and uproot the discrimination–intentional or not–embedded in these historically-male occupations, so that women can take their fair place on work sites and in union halls. Tradeswomen will be looking for the actions that follow the good words.

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Susan Eisenberg is author of "We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction," a New York Times Notable Book, creator of the mixed-media installation On Equal Terms, and Resident Artist/Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She can be reached at [email protected]. Your can read her "Move the Decimal Point" blog at: http://susaneisenberg.wordpress.com.

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