Women Electricians Are Live Wires for a Labor Cause

December 15, 2009 posted by Francine Moccio*

I wrote Live Wire to go beyond conventional definitions of discrimination in order to point up some of the more submerged reasons an occupation remains sex segregated and to more effectively frame the content of policy reform, advocacy and compliance regulations to address this important issue. Billions of dollars of stimulus package funding appropriated for New York’s building industry by President Obama is currently underway. Women need access to these good paying jobs, and yet every construction site might as well be hanging a “men only” sign out; women are nowhere to be found despite the heroic struggle of tradeswomen like the women electricians in Live Wire to blaze an intergenerational trail for their sisters.

While women have made strides in other previously male dominated professions like medicine and law, highly skilled blue-collar occupations and industries as well as fields of science and technology remain fiercely segregated by sex. In order to flesh out why, in general, male-typed jobs and professions remain hyper-masculine jobs despite vigorous litigation, advocacy and policy reform, I felt compelled to conduct a case study of one highly skilled trade, electricians and their union brotherhood. I wanted to observe and present to the reader some of the ways in which the organizational and subtle forms of sex discrimination are tied together. I also wanted to “deconstruct” the mystery behind the concrete ceiling women face in the industry by comparing their attempts to integrate the occupation and union with those of black men and other minorities, such as Hispanics, Asians and more recently, immigrant workers in general. And to determine to what degree do varying degrees of male privilege at home influence the reproduction of hyper-masculinity among electricians at work and in the union.

Obtaining access to the history and culture of New York’s electrical construction trade is one of the most interesting aspects of this study; and by far one of the most difficult research challenges I have encountered. As a professor of labor studies at a public university, I faced the somewhat daunting task of teaching a class on the topic of “class, race and gender” to young, mostly white, male construction workers who were my students in an electrical apprenticeship program. Upon completion of their training sponsored by their union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local Union #3, one of the most powerful unions in the country, these young men (many of whom were beneficiaries of “father to son” sponsorship) aspired to attain good paying highly skilled jobs as master electricians, jobs that did not necessarily require professional degrees.

Throughout my research, I conducted in-depth interviews with the major stakeholders in the industry, that is, contractors, unionists, workers, and trainees. I always began these interviews with the same question: Why all the fuss and reaction to such a small handful of women coming into this occupation? What’s the big deal? I also felt compelled to find out whether every new work group experienced similar resistance as women, for example, were African-Americans and Jews similarly resisted? Much to my surprise, responses to my inquiries required a book length explanation.

From the eyes of workers, employers and unionists, I realized that fraternal societies and the role they play in building male union solidarity in the construction industry and brotherhood were key to unlocking one of the doors behind sex segregation. In addition, I queried them about how external social movements of equality in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the civil rights and women’s movement, influenced women’s integration in this frontier of male exclusivity. One critical question that emerges quite distinctly in the field is the relationship between male electricians’ role in the family and their attitudes toward women integrating into the trade. Male privilege at home and former customs and traditions of journeymen influence and strengthen the bargaining power of the union and its brothers to achieve a “family wage” when negotiating collective bargaining agreements with contractors.

This collective bargaining success on the part of the union then permits the sustenance of a patriarchal-like male breadwinner role in the family that in turn reinforces traditional gender mores between a male journeyman and his wives. To buttress male solidarity, the brotherhood creates a sub-culture of ceremonies that ritualize patriarchal-like family values and serves to transmit these values from one generation of male electricians to another. This ensures from the brotherhood’s point of view an intergenerational loyalty to keeping the work in the trade within the purview of “men” and maintaining this sex-typing in order to guarantee continuing high wages and “cradle to grave” benefits. Selected male journeymen are trained as “instructors” within the brotherhood and as such these men are assigned to incoming young male apprentices for the purpose of transmitting not only the “tricks of the trade” but also a young man’s obligation and his role in the family. Journeymen teach their young understudies to be well-rounded, and good citizens which includes trade values about what it means to be a “man” and notions of masculinity in the industry and their important role of male breadwinner.

But the institutional life of the brotherhood and the industry are also ethnic- and race-driven. For example, the ethnic hierarchy in the brotherhood is one in which fraternal social clubs of Dutch, Irish, Catholics, Jews, white European, and Southern Europeans are on top; whereas fraternal orders of blacks, Asians, Jamaicans, among other racial minorities, are on the bottom of the hierarchy. In addition, with regard to work and family life, black men are viewed by their white counterparts as unsuccessful in patriarchal-type practices in their homes. However, despite the strong degree of racism in society in general, black and Hispanic men, are more accepted into the industry and union (“at least they are men” says one respondent); as compared with even white women, with the situation of women of color being even more complex.

Some of my findings point to a triangular relationship among unionists, contractors and workers initially forged in the early part of the twentieth century to keep the labor peace and promote male solidarity against exploitative practices and chaos in the industry, currently result in exclusion of new groups of workers, such as women. Even though minority men and women are viewed as encroaching on the industry and an unwanted presence due to “government interference” and affirmative action, minority men because of the intricate network of male fraternal clubs within the brotherhood and industry are more accepted than their female counterparts. Women are seen as a threat not only to privilege at work, but at home as well. According to some male electricians, “women took the place of a guy who really needed a job.” “Women are for after work,” indicated one young man, demonstrating how polarized gender relations are still extant.

In writing Live Wire, I learned that advocates, judges, legislators, unionists, educators or anyone concerned with advancing workplace inclusion need to know that governmental compliance oversight at the highest federal levels is the necessary ingredient and the most important route to workplace fairness for women to get their share of good paying unionized jobs. Live Wire has a broad social science application and will be of interest to faculty and students across academic disciplines, such as Labor Studies, gender studies, anthropology, political science, business and economics, race and ethnicity, sociology, and women’s studies. For a class examination copy or a review copy, please email: gkramer@temple.edu.

*Francine Moccio is the author of Live Wire and writes on the problems women face in the electrical labor force. Further recommended reading: Jane LaTour’s Sisters in the Brotherhood.

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