Today's Rosies


Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality In New York City

By Jane Latour

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 276 pp., $27.95, paperback


Reviewed by Brigid O’Farrell


President Obama’s economic stimulus package of more than $700 billion dollars aims to bring the country out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It creates more than three-million jobs: traditional construction jobs building roads, bridges, and schools, and new green-economy jobs building solar panels and devices to make homes and businesses energy efficient. After praising the infrastructure spending, Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary and presidential advisor, highlighted the need to include women, minorities, and the long-term unemployed in the jobs program. Rush Limbaugh lost no time in dedicating one of his shows to white male construction workers, declaring that Reich didn’t want them to receive any of the bailout money but instead “he wants it to go to inexperienced minorities and single women.”

In Sisters in the Brotherhoods, Jane Latour provides timely responses both to Obama’s challenge of creating good jobs with equal opportunities and Limbaugh’s charge of reverse discrimination for the undeserving. She offers her insights for moving toward the long-neglected promise of equal opportunity for women, regardless of race, ethnicity, and class, through the voices of pioneers who broke job barriers in the 1970s. They demonstrate, once again, women’s ability at skilled blue-collar work, when they have the support of good programs and despite weak enforcement of the laws, and their interest in becoming active trade unionists. To make equality a reality in difficult economic times, however, the experiences of women such as electrician Cynthia Long, with more than thirty years in the trades, and firefighter Jo Ann Jacobs, who retired after eighteen years on the force, suggest that women will have to join together with supportive union brothers, as well as with colleagues outside the trades, to push the administration forward and hold both employers and unions accountable. The stimulus plan is a place to start, as Latour concludes:

The laws that guarantee equal employment opportunity are on the books—but remote—due to lack of enforcement…But the experiences of the pioneers have taught us what works. Models and programs exist. There is a storehouse of information available to widen opportunities for young women.

By conducting oral histories, searching archives, and interviewing experts, Latour weaves together the life stories of 25 women who have lived and worked in New York City from the late 1970s to the present. They are employed on construction sites, in manufacturing plants, at telecommunications offices, in hospitals, in big rigs on the highway, and as civil servants maintaining public buildings and protecting the lives of the public. Latour is able to show progress, albeit modest, across the three decades of her study.

She begins by placing the pioneers in the historical context of that famed World War II veteran, Rosie the Riveter. They are Rosie’s daughters, but they have not been given the popular support or historical credit that Rosie received. After Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited employers and unions from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, and presidential executive orders led to affirmative-action programs for women in construction, many courageous women withstood death threats, physical violence, sexual harassment, isolation, the lack of proper training, and little access to basic accommodations such as bathrooms. They fought for fair tests, interviews, promotions, safety procedures, and pensions, and often found themselves struggling with the very unions that were supposed to represent them. They went to court to gain access to their jobs and to stop the harassment that followed their hiring. Even when they achieved legal victories, the toll in their time, energy, and wellbeing was often devastating.

Latour’s pioneers include Venus Green and Ilene Winkler. College graduates working in low-paying publishing jobs, they became switching-equipment technicians as part of a consent decree signed in 1973 between AT&T, then the largest private employer in the United States, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created to enforce Title VII—a settlement opposed by Local 1101, Communication Workers of America (CWA). She also writes about Brenda Berkman, a labor lawyer who became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit to open up the New City Fire Department to women. After 24 years on the job, there were still men who wouldn’t sit next to her at union meetings, and she was one of only thirty women on the force. Susan D’Alessandro, a stationary engineer and member of Local 30, International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), went to work for the city’s Board of Education as a skilled boiler-plant manager. In 1990, after testifying before the New York City Commission on Human Rights, she was fired. A five-year court battle later, she was reinstated with back pay, but Latour reports that “the feisty, very vocal, and always-up-for-the-good-fight girl was gone.”

Not all the pioneers joined lawsuits or experienced severe harassment. Sisters acknowledges the importance of helpful men. Despite difficulties, most women retained a strong belief in unions. Several became shop stewards, and Eileen Sullivan, a mother of five who started as a big rig driver with the Teamsters, became director of the grievance and discipline department for the powerful 40,000-member Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

The women whom Latour interviews are single mothers; married with children; lesbian; straight; black, white, and brown; working class; middle class; high school drop outs; and college graduates. They come from the multicultural whirlpool that is New York City. Why did they take these challenging jobs? Like men, they love the work, take pride in the things they build or the lives they save, and appreciate the good pay and benefits. In 1983, Yvone Maitin, now a 24-year veteran of Local 30, IUOE, went from a job where she earned $11,000 a year to an apprenticeship starting at $16,000. “Like any woman in her right mind, there was no question which job was winning out, especially since I was a single parent,” she said. Carpenter Veronica Session explained that despite the challenges of race and gender, she is satisfied with her choice: “You get to build…You can visually see it, from beginning to end.”

Latour brings to these stories her skills as a journalist, union member, labor educator, and activist in the union democracy movement. The respect she gained from the women enabled her to chronicle the organizing they did among themselves and the tensions they faced within the organizations they created: cross-trade groups such as United Tradeswomen (UT); intraunion groups such as Women Electricians (WE); and training programs such as Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW). In each setting, the women struggled with issues of race, class, and sexual orientation. In addition, Latour reveals, they also confronted problems of union corruption involving mob connections, payoffs, and murder. Joining reform efforts made the women troublemakers on several fronts and increasing hostility against them.

Interviews with twenty-first century tradeswomen bring the book to an a cautiously optimistic close. In 2003, Angela Olszewski, from a working class family in Brooklyn, tried several unskilled jobs after high school and then became a journey-level tilesetter in Local 7, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. When a co-worker harassed her, she called her union representative and the man was soon taken off the job. Margarita Suarez was born in the Philippines and received a master’s degree in computer science from Columbia University. In 2006, she became an elevator mechanic in Local 3, IBEW. She described her apprenticeship as smooth and her first assignment as a “mint placement.” Yet she was the first woman in her division and one of only four women in the apprenticeship school. Both Olszewski and Suarez benefited from the NEW apprenticeship outreach and training program, funded by the Department of Labor’s Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations program.

Sisters is an important and powerful acknowledgment of what tradeswomen have accomplished. I am as in awe of their courage, perseverance, tenacity, and skill as I was when I first began to study occupational sex segregation in the 1970s. Latour’s focus on one city, across trades, in the public and private sectors is a welcome addition to a slowly growing body of oral histories, autobiographies, and social-science research documenting women’s success in nontraditional skilled work as well as the barriers they still face. Oral histories, however, are limited to the small number of women willing to speak out in what can be a hostile world. And while women remain a small percentage of this workforce, their actual numbers are important. In construction, for example, women make up less than five percent of the workforce—but that means more than 250,000 women. Larger samples and survey methods would reveal more about the women and men who do skilled manual labor.

Latour covers a great deal in her book, but more information about three areas would be helpful. First, although she acknowledges that employers are a major part of the problem, she focuses almost exclusively on unions. Second, the hostile reaction of male co-workers would be more understandable within a broader context that included economic conditions, technological shifts, and the precipitous decline of the labor movement. As Yvone Maitin recognizes, men’s anger about affirmative action is misplaced:

They’re angry because they don’t have jobs. They don’t have medical care. They’re angry because their kids can’t eat. Their marriages are falling apart… instead of looking at where the real problem is they’re fighting [women] for our measly 10 percent…..It’s a class issue and turns into a sexist and racist argument…[it] is really an issue of economics. 

Third, although Latour describes the legal framework and government programs that help women, she draws few policy recommendations from her rich and textured interviews. Sisters in the Brotherhoods has important policy implications for the current economic crisis. There are clearly many women in the workforce who are qualified to participate in the new infrastructure and green jobs, but policymakers must reach out to them and set goals. The government must once again take up its responsibility to fund and monitor recruitment, training, and harassment-prevention programs if equal employment opportunity is to become a reality. Sisters in the Brotherhoods suggests that laws can open doors, but that they are just the beginning. For more ideas, President Obama will need to include tradeswomen on his stimulus-advisory panel.

Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar in the San Francisco Bay Area and an affiliate of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, George Washington University. She is completing a book on Eleanor Roosevelt and the American labor movement. 

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy