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How Sisters, Daughters, Girlfriends And Nieces Are Changing The Face Of The Building Trades In NYC

New York, NY — If you are at all interested in seeing the trade union movement build strength and expand diversity, the stubbornly single-digit figures reflecting the overall percentage of women presently working in the Building Trades still have some way to go before they start inspiring backflips in anyone. But there is another unofficial metric out there that clearly demonstrates exciting things are, indeed, happening. 

Happy “Mom” Judaline with Plumbers apprentice Jacira Encarnacion.

Take, for example, Laborers Local 79 member John Montanez. He’s been in the union for two years, is currently working on a big Citibank project and couldn’t be happier about it. One of the main reasons for John’s exceedingly high level of job satisfaction is that he gets to work alongside his 30-year-old sister Yesenia Aleman on the same job site. You see, Yesenia is the one that convinced her brother to follow her into the union.

“It’s cool; he’s got my back, I got his,” the seven-year journeywoman recently LaborPress. “We go the extra mile and push each other, making sure we don’t get hurt and we stay safe.”

Shauna Irving, 28, started her union career early, too. Come October, the IBEW Local 3 electrician will mark her eighth year as a trade unionist. Irving fondly remembers being a kid and regularly attending the New York City Labor Day Parade with her Sheet Metal Worker dad and later, becoming part of NEW — Nontraditional Employment for Women — where she learned enough about the Building Trades to know exactly what she wanted to do after high school.

“Once I graduated high school, I didn’t want to take out student loans, so I decided the Trades would be a great career for me,” Irving told LaborPress. “And with Local 3, they actually help us gain a college education. I decided Local 3 would be the best fit for me.”

Leah Rambo, SMART Local 28’s director of training and co-chair of the New York City Coalition for Women in Construction [NYCCWC], actually taught Irving’s father, and was the first tradeswoman the young electrician ever met.

At NYCCWC’s first-ever career fair and fashion show held at the Bronx School of Design and Construction this past week, Rambo talked about the profound impact women have already had on the Building Trades.

Amanda Filpo embodies the “can-do” attitude of union tradeswomen.

“We’ve got boyfriends and girlfriends in the Trades…we’ve got husbands and wives in there — I know that means something’s happening and the culture is changing,” Rambo said. “The younger generation is rally kind of open; they don’t have the same limits that my generation had on them.”

Aleman and Irving were both part of a much larger group of tradeswomen doing jobs as electricians, sheet metal workers, plumbers, laborers and firefighters, who took part in the NYCCWC career fair and fashion show  — a fun and creative way to show young girls what women in the Building Trades are really like. 

Young girls tend to not know this is an option. They’re not really taught it — they don’t think about it. And, sometimes, it’s hard to do something and be something if you don’t see someone doing it first. — Leah Rambo, NYCCWC

“We want young girls and women to understand that there are career opportunities with the Building Trade, to let them know that there’s a lot being offered — and there’s a lot of us out there doing it,” Rambo said. “Young girls tend to not know this is an option. They’re not really taught it — they don’t think about it. And, sometimes, it’s hard to do something and be something if you don’t see someone doing it first.”

When Sheet Metal Local 28 apprentice Amanda Filpo looks around and sees her father, brother, uncles and cousins, it seems as if her entire family is in the union. But after graduating from NEW’s pre-apprenticeship program and earning entry into Local 28, Filpo says it was important to her to go her own way, work on different jobs and to prove “I don’t need my family’s backing to do what I do.”

Tradeswomen took a fashionable turn to help inspire more girls to join the labor movement.

“I would definitely recommend getting into the [Building] Trades to young women — especially those who don’t want to go to college,” Filpo told LaborPress. “We make more than people with bachelor’s degrees and you can gain so many opportunities being a woman in a male dominated industry. There’s definitely a place for you if you come with a great attitude and a willingness to work.”

At 19, first-year apprentice Imani Carter is only just beginning her union career with Laborers Local 79 and is still figuring out her path in life.  

“I wasn’t able to go to college because I didn’t get financial aid so, I just came in to make money,” Carter told LaborPress. “Eventually, if I want to go to college, I’ll do that. But I’m actually starting to like it here — so, I might stay instead of going to college.”

Jacira Encarnacion, 30, started her career as a union plumber after becoming disheartened working security on a local construction site. 

“I saw one female [on the job site], and it made me want to get into construction,” she told LaborPress. “My dad’s a plumber. I tried to get into it, but being that it’s still not so common to have women doing construction, he didn’t want me to do it. He was kind of scared for me. But, as I got older, I decided I wanted to give it a try. I like being hands on. My dad, uncle and cousin are all Local 1, and they are all very proud of me.” 

Back in the late 70’s, women constituted less than two-percent of all construction workers. By 2005, that figure had inched up to three-percent. Today, Rambo puts the figure as high as seven-percent with a few unions being as much as 13-percent women. 

Judaline Cassidy was a trailblazer when she became the first woman to join Plumbers Union Local 371 almost 25 years ago. She was also the first woman elected to the Examining Board of Plumbers Local Union 1. In 2017, Cassidy created an incredibly successful nonprofit called “Tools & Tiaras” as another innovative way to encourage more girls to grow up and embark on union careers just like she did. Today, Cassidy also serves as  NYCCWC’s Building Trades outreach officer. But, perhaps, her biggest source of satisfaction comes from being “mom” and mentor to young plumbing apprentices like Encarnacion. 

“I was her first mechanic,” Cassidy told LaborPress. “I was ecstatic the first day I saw her on the job site. And when I got a chance to work with her, it was even better. From day one, I never held back; I taught her everything. Even when she was scared and didn’t want to do it, I made her do it. She is going to be good. I can tell. She’s a hard worker and she’s a go-getter.”

While construction remains an overwhelmingly male dominated industry, tradeswomen say the men they work with are happy to have them in the ranks. 

“All of my greatest mechanics who taught me have all been men and they have daughters and wives,” Filpo added. “I think the climate that we’re in now, they are looking at women as equals. They want women in the trade. They like having us on the job sites. As long as you come there and you’re not trying to be a ‘woman’ — you’re just trying to be a ‘worker’ — then yeah, you’re experience is going to be positive.”

Says Rambo, “The guys are comfortable being in the trades with their girlfriends and sisters, their nieces, and even their daughters. There’s still a lot more to go, but you can see the change happening.”

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