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On Their Tools in India – NYC Carpenter Leads All-Woman Union Delegation Overseas

Tradeswomen getting the job done in India.

New York, NY – Local 157 Carpenter Amanda Kay Johnson still remembers the day this past fall, when she realized the two long years she spent helping to plan the 2019 International Tradeswomen Training Exchange Delegation to Kerala, India had actually become a reality. 

“I remember crying and just being like, ‘This is awesome’ — seeing the Indian tradeswomen really get into it, asking us questions and wanting to know more. Seeing it all come together; it made the trip feel even more powerful,” the 39-year-old third-year apprentice tells LaborPress. 

The Archana Women’s Center located in the southern Indian city of Kottayam was founded in 2004, and is dedicated to helping empower marginalized and underprivileged women succeed largely through the Building Trades. 

Johnson and the rest of her team — each one a union tradeswoman from the U.S. or Canada — spent several days at Archana meeting with female carpenters, electricians, plumbers and masons. 

Woman comprise some 40 percent of India’s construction workers.

“Most are not skilled, but these women we met in southern India are skilled,” Johnson says. “We went to the job sites, we saw them build the homes or doing the electrical or plumbing — then we spent the last part of the trip meeting with the union officials [a high percentage of which, are women, too].”

The housing project, following massive flooding in the area several years ago, is actually part of an anti-poverty program where anyone who is impoverished is guaranteed a home and 100 days of work. 

“That’s a big deal in southern India,” the Staten Island resident says. “I also met a cement mason and her brother — they worked together. They really cared about each other. They just wanted to see each other succeed. He didn’t look down on her and she didn’t look down on him. They considered themselves equals. A few guys I did meet on the job site were pretty much all like that — they wanted to see the women succeed and they didn’t look down on them just because they’re women.”

After spending two weeks in Kerala, in which she and her team also attended the annual meeting of the 2,500-member Building Woodworkers International Union, Johnson says the challenges women in construction face are the same whether they are working in India or in North America. 

“We have the same struggles,” she says. “They have struggle with childcare and social acceptance, they struggle trying to manage the time it takes to learn the Building Trades. It’s the same whether it’s here or there.”

Tradeswomen gather in front of the bamboo home they constructed together.

Johnson, who also has a Masters of Science in Civil Engineering and Construction Management, noticed further similarities between her 13-member team of North American tradeswomen and their Indian counterparts. 

“I noticed just how strong and capable they are — just like us,” she says. “They’re [often] looked upon as not strong enough and we’re [often] looked at as not smart enough. We’re fighting the same struggles — and at the end of the day, we’re just trying to provide for our families. They’re trying to use their hands and their brains to build something good for their community.”

For Johnson, the opportunity to travel to India was too important to let slip away. 

“I wanted to lead the trip because it was important to me to connect with these women that were in construction elsewhere in the world,” she says. “I know I’m a leader, so it was easy for me to step up.”

Despite all the gains the Labor Movement has made over the years, Johnson still laments that whether here or in India, not all male construction workers are open-minded about having women in their ranks. 

“It boggles my mind that all these years later, even with OSHA and all the different [anti-discrimination] laws in place, we’re still having these struggles that these laws were meant to stop,” Johnson says. “It has gotten a little better, but it’s nowhere near where it should be. And that is universal.”

After her two weeks in India, Johnson is back home on the job, learning welding at night and studying for her drywall certification. 

Indian apprentice learns plumbing skills.

“I want to have a huge breath of carpentry and construction knowledge to go higher up in the union whether it’s teaching construction or engineering or becoming part of the leadership,” the Florida transplant says. “There’s only so much I can do and other women can do to change things. Foremen, supervisors and others in leadership — if they’re not open to certain things we’re not going to get stuff done.”

Johnson says Massachusetts is got the right idea codifying inclusivity in collective bargaining agreements and holding contractors accountable on a monthly basis. 

“I’ve seen guys be intimated by me; I’ve seen guys give pushback,” Johnson says. “And I know it’s not just me; I know it’s a social thing, it’s a cultural thing, it’s a historical thing. It’s so entrenched that however we have to figure that out — we have to [do it], or it’s not going to change the way we need it to change for women and minorities across the world.”

While in India, it was important for Johnson to get to know the workers there on their own terms and to listen. 

“We made it clear, we’re not coming over to just teach you — we want you to teach us; we want to learn your ways because something that you’re doing might be better for us than what we have thought of,” she says. 

The egalitarian support Johnson experienced working in southern India is something she hopes will spread to the rest of the country and around the globe. 

“I was very appreciative of it and humbled by it,” she says. “That is not all of India. I want it to be universal. I want anyone that wants to be successful in the Building Trades — male, female, transgender, minority — whatever you are, if you want to be successful, I want you to be successful.”

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