For Pride Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various LGBTQ Americans who have worked and continue to work at the intersection of civil and labor rights. The first profile this year is Irene Soloway.
As a young adult in 1978, Irene Soloway moved from St. Louis to New York. She was working in a bar that had a significant clientele who were roofers. Soloway referred to the behavior of her boss at the bar as “appalling,” so she quit. The roofers in the bar that she knew jokingly offered her a roofing hammer. She took it as a challenge, and it made her want to show them that she could do the job.
Soloway did some roofing work, but hated it. She moved through various jobs in the construction industry, but settled on carpentry, both because she liked the work and the Carpenters union opened its doors to women. She became a member in 1979, when she began the Women in Apprenticeship Program. Soloway and other women were made to feel that they belong, that the program was more than tokenism.
At the time, not only were there few women in the building trades, even fewer of them were feminist Jewish New York lesbians. Soloway said that she rarely faced any direct discrimination. Instead, the concerns of rank-and-file members, women or otherwise, were largely ignored in her local at the time. She said:
The union and the apprenticeship in the Carpenters Union was now what I would consider sexist…we were never discriminated against within the school—but the specific issues that were barriers to women were never addressed specifically. So it was a second hand…diffuse kind of way that sexism was expressed.
Even when concerns were raised, leaders in the local were told to keep their concerns quiet, as they were all “brothers” in the union. Soloway explained:
We tried to inform the Carpenters Union of what we thought they needed to do to make the union receptive to women and to be inclusive. And we…became aware…that the Carpenters Union was not interested in fresh, new ideas coming from rank and file. We came in with ideas about having sexual harassment for the men in construction. We came in with ideas about having a Women’s Committee that would address the issues of women in construction. We actually came in with ideas about how the apprenticeship school could be more in touch with the apprentices around issues of ethnicity and race and issues….And what we were always told was: We’re all one Union and we’re all brothers, and there’s no need…to point out these differences because we’re all carpenters.
This was the first time she had been in a union and Soloway was very excited about it because she believed that it was a structure that was supposed to support her and provide a steady job. But her local at the time was very undemocratic and her concerns weren’t taken seriously. Despite the fact that she was often the only woman in the meetings, she kept attending for the next five years, never backing down from the agenda that she pursued.
In 1979, Soloway had been a founding member of United Tradeswomen, a group of diverse women working in the building trades. The organization was originally formed to recruit women into apprenticeship programs but quickly grew to provide support and advocacy for women who were starting to enter the construction industry in New York. Much of Soloway’s early activism took place outside the union hall.
Fear and intimidation weren’t limited to the union hall, they were also present in the workplace. Rumors were rampant that members who spoke out against union leadership were met with violence or had their careers and lives destroyed. Soloway wasn’t intimidated. By 1994, she noted in an interview that many of the things she and allies had pushed for at the time have come to pass:
Now almost fifteen years later—they actually are being addressed, so that in terms of, yes, there is actually a Women’s Committee now that’s…sanctioned to meet within the Carpenters school, and it’s advertised in the Carpenters paper that there is such a committee, and who the contact people are—so there’s, at least, an acknowledgement of this committee. And there is specific training—sexual harassment training—for men and being done by women who are Carpenters—graduates of our school—who are now teaching at the school—which is an important part of the program. And another one of our other ideas was about teaching labor history in the Carpenters school, which was then ignored, and now, you know, like history’s being taught in the Carpenters school.
During the mid-1980s, she got a job with the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation. The shift from at-will work that was left to the whims of the local’s power structure to a secure job with security was a major turning point in her life. When she started working for the city, she felt that her job was more secure and she could speak out more. In the civil service, they had elected stewards, not ones chosen by the power structure. She won the steward position after becoming outspoken about asbestos problems on her worksite. She started refusing to work in contaminated areas. Management wasn’t prepared for the problem and had to deal with it because of her. Several men came and asked her to run for steward. She won.
Soloway also helped produce the newspaper “Hard Hat News” and had to use pseudonyms like Brick Shields, to disguise her identity. She worked on a long, but successful, campaign to expand representation for rank-and-file members within the district council. In 1990, she appeared with other carpenters before the New York City Commission on Human Rights to testify about gender and race relations in the industry. She shared widespread reports that women in the industry faced threats of rape and physical violence and were subjected to pornography and insulting personalized graffiti on the worksite.
While she was working as a carpenter at Lincoln Hospital, she began taking pre-med classes and completed the coursework to become a physician’s assistant. She left carpentry and began work at a methadone clinic. She looked back on her activism and those of her fellow carpenters and what impact it had:
We still felt very much on the outside of the construction industry. It felt very kind of scary to us, but we kind of created cultural groups that supported ourselves and each other, that was able to move forward into that industry. Now I think that women are more into the industry, so I think we did do something. I think we did, like, move ourselves inside—from the outside to the inside—by creating an identity for ourselves, as well as educating ourselves and each other, and trying to educate the union about us….I think our presence and our strong continued presence for each other and ourselves was the main accomplishment of this group.
This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on June 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.