Chicago was the scene of 1600 tradeswomen converging to elevate their empowerment at the Women Build Nations Conference from October 13th-16th, 2017. It’s not the average conference of suits and ties, pencil skirts and high heels. The Wonder Women of America descend from the sky to motivate each other in T-Shirts, jeans and yes, dirty work boots. The real women of America. The Union Women of America.
Opening Day Opens Eyes
As we wait in line for registration we begin to converse on our shared experience as first-generation tradeswomen. The first female LiUNA garbage woman. The first female IBEW electrician. The legacy women carrying on the family
tradition as an Iron Worker. We share our American stories, finally reaching our epic moment as a Sisterhood. Rooms are filled with women from across the nation and every trade. Wow is not enough. A wave of emotion filled with pride, love and the feeling that someone understands me. They’ve seen through my eyes. The first day is just orientating oneself to the amazing women in every room. Women we know we must support.
We move into a vendor hall, not your typical women’s craft fair. Christmas magnets and handmade Teddy Bears won’t be found. It’s filled with technology based work boots and gear. An entire booth filled with books from the Illinois Labor Historical Society on us, the women of the Labor Movement. It’s a favorite of first timers as they see women workers on the covers of an entire book, not just a snippet in a newspaper. Addie Wyatt, Mother Jones and Regina Polk. Those are tradeswomen role models.
We share T-shirts with our locals and mottos emblazoned on the back. Sharing our history and our progress with each other. It’s not just a T-Shirt anymore because “my sister, a Boilermaker, from Oregon gave it to me. I have something to remember her by now.” Something to warm our hearts as we travel through dirt, snow, mud, sexual harassment and hiding our pregnancies in America’s toughest jobs.
Second To None
The morning plenary is filled with the leaders of our country, states and unions. Juliana Stratton, currently the first African-American female to run for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, joined us this year to ignite the spark to elect more women. Our LiUNA pride extended to her in our support for her campaign. Yep, politics is a master game union women must play to win at the bargaining table. The Chicago Women in Trades energized us with
plenty of song and dance, always to female vocals. Pink and Beyonce rock this house. CWIT’s strength is evident even after 30 years in the making as their leaders continue to inform attendees of new laws and programs while elevating our consciousness raising.
Educating the masses of women on the second and third day isn’t a task for the weak hearted. Women share their experiences of deaths on the job, being alone as the only female on a site, their fear of male retribution for taking a man’s job and lobbying for legislation forcing companies to hire and retain them. We quickly move from one heartbreak to an epiphany in each class. Violence in the Workplace sessions prepare us for defense, activism classes remind us of why we chose union trades and tradeswomen history engages our empowerment to make way for the next generation of women.
Never Say Goodbye
We wake on that fateful Sunday every year yearning for home while wanting to stay forever. Forever with the women who know us, know where we have been and guiding us to where we are going. We begin networking and
greeting each other at a very somber breakfast. Some hungover from the tradeswomen dance party that we shake our butts and cares away on the previous evening. Some somber knowing they must fulfill their goals and pledges to advance their education from expansive sessions. Educated sisters anticipating the battles they must begin, endure and win against sexism in the workplace. No more walking away from a sexual advance ashamed. Now, empowered by classes and shared experiences, they must speak up.
The bell rings and classes begin again. Even at 8 am rooms are filled with women wanting to learn, needing to learn and depending on these classes to formulate their own futures. Answers to questions that always begin with how can I? where can I? Winter isn’t the only thing coming at work. Union sisters are coming back and they’re ready.
An amazing end to an amazing weekend as the Iron Workers take their places on the stage. Our one and only stagehand sister from St. Louis still in shock over improper lighting and props. Gotta love her. She knows what she’s doing. They discuss a subject that touches every woman across the globe, maternity leave. How do we work a tough job, stay safe and have a healthy baby? Of course, a union has figured it out. IMPACT has created a formula to pay women while pregnant and even after birth. FMLA doesn’t even do that. Union sisters listen intently to take the
details back to their own unions. Sisters know it must be replicated especially since women will be 50% of
the Labor Movement by 2025. Terry Healy, LiUNA VP, has already begun the research process. Laborers are looking to be protected. Thanks VP.
A struggle to leave the table ensues. The last goodbye is here. It’s sweeter than a Hallmark card. A goodbye until next year. We all know we will be back. The conference is where we are safe, where our sisters can be who they are and speak our truth. A tradeswoman’s truth. Family never leaves for long. We walk away knowing our sisters are always in our hearts.