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Unions offer peer support for women in construction, to deal with on the job sexism and other issues

COURTESY: ANJANET BANUELOS BOLANOS - Anjanet Banuelos Bolanos now works for the laborers union and is an active part of the support group for women in construction called LeanIn Circles.

A global nonprofit has partnered with trade unions in two countries to help women working in construction, and it's having an impact here in Oregon.

LeanIn.Org, North America's Building Trade Union, and Canada's Building Together have launched LeanIn Circles for Union Tradeswomen, a peer mentorship and training program that helps women break new ground in an industry historically dominated by men.

Women in the workplace face numerous obstacles due to sexism, both overt and unconscious, organizers said. In construction, women make up less than 4% of field workers in the U.S., and it can be extremely difficult to be noticed for the right reasons.

COURTESY: ANJANET BANUELOS BOLANOS - Anjanet Banuelos Bolanos of LiUNA! Laborers: Local 737 on the job in 2014 as a laborer. Now she helps run a support group for women in construction, and promotes her union.

"Women in the building trades are talented and determined — but they are often alone," said Sheryl Sandberg, LeanIn.Org founder and chief operating officer at Facebook. "Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen will connect them with each other and help them gain valuable skills for self-advocacy and navigating bias. This is an important step toward empowering more women to take advantage of the pathway to economic security that trade union jobs provide."

COURTESY PHOTO: ANJANET BANUELOS BOLANOS - Anjanet Banuelos Bolanos of LiUNA! Laborers: Local 737 on the job as a laborer. Now she helps run a support group for women in construction, and promotes her union.

The program provides a space for tradeswomen to connect and speak openly about the challenges at work. The long-term plan is to teach women how to navigate bias and advocate for themselves.

Currently, there are nearly 700 tradeswomen in the program across 47 states and seven Canadian provinces. Most groups are limited to between five to ten people to make it easier to speak intimately. Due to the pandemic, most groups meet digitally.

One Oregonian actively involved is Anjanet Banuelos Bolanos, a laborer and a member of LiUNA Laborers: Local 737, the local chapter of the {obj:54064:Laborers International Union} of North America.

Laborers, Bolanossaid, are "the first ones on the job and the last ones that leave a job on any kind of commercial construction."

After 12 years as a laborer, Bolanoscurrently works for her LiUNA local chapter, visiting job sites as a mobile organizer.

"I do everything from community outreach, to recruiting people into the trades, with a lot of focus on women retention into our program. I'm just a Jill-of-all-trades," Bolanos said. "In the field, I've done everything from elevating the crane, to working in live sewers to working on streetcars to being a drill chuck hand… a bit of everything."

Women in construction are at a double disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. Women make up a small minority of all construction workers, and they are often perceived as less strong or less capable of heavy physical work, less mechanically-minded, and less likely to lead. They must prove themselves over and over to stay respected.

If there are problems on union job sites, there are channels for grievances. But even so, women need mutual support. Which is where LeanIn Circles come in, Bolanos said.

Bolanos's mentorship group, known as a "circle" in LeanIn parlance, is a mixture of carpenters, electricians, laborers and ironworkers, ranging from coast to coast. It meets once a month on Zoom. Five to ten people show up each month.

One common topic of discussion is how to tackle situations where male colleagues don't know how to handle women in the workplace, expect less from female coworkers, or don't give women the same opportunities to prove themselves.

Bolanos says the women in her circle aim to be each other's backbone and support system.

"We talk about whatever struggles we may have and give that to other females on that Zoom conference call, to give the support the person is going to need to make it through that next day."

Many women share similar stories, such as feeling like they are treated differently than their male coworkers.

"Whether it be intentional or non-intentional, there can be sexism on the job site; racism on the job site," Bolanos said. "It could be a male comes on the job site, and there's a female journeyman there, and they give the male apprentice more jobs and more responsibility. Or they leave the female apprentice to do cleanup or minimum tasks that require no skills."

In Bolanos's circle, they learn how to raise such issues in a way that won't backfire.

"If we address things certain ways, people tend to say, 'Oh, you're just acting like a woman, or you're overreacting,'" Bolanos said. "This is trying to find the tools that we need to be able to express ourselves and get at the things that are issues to us that are important because everybody goes to work to learn or to get skills to be able to support our family. And if we're not given these skills in these trades, then you know, we become expendable."

Bolanos says she has only seen one female superintendent. "But I know several female leads. I know a lot of female safety women."

She added, "We share our good experiences, as well as the experiences that aren't so good, but it's not all negative."

Bolanos credits working for the union as well as being a union tradesperson with garnering her respect.

"In my position, working for my union, I am tremendously respected, and I'm valued. My ideas are listened to. I cannot say whether other females are not feeling that way or other women feel that way. But I know within my union and within my trade, I know that I am valued and I've reached the level that a lot of my male counterparts would like to be in one day."

Laboring may be tough and dirty, but Bolanos of LiUNA Laborers: Local 737 sells potential union laborers on the ease of entry and comfortable financial life.

"You could go into an apprenticeship program where you can earn while you learn and be able to go into an apprenticeship program, 4,000 hours which is typically two years, and come in not really knowing anything. Because all you need really for our program is a high school education and reliable transportation, within two-and-a-half years, you'll be making well over $30 an hour."

She says interest in the trades is picking up in high schools.

"Now that they're allowing the trades back into the schools and we have a lot of these pre-apprenticeship programs, and it's breaking that stigmatism that blue collar trades are a bad thing. It's letting the next generation know that college is not necessarily the only choice that you have."

The outreach is working. Bolanos said Local 737 made a commitment to bring women into the trades and retain them.

"Our apprentice department made a commitment to have 20% of our union apprenticeship women by 2020. And we surpassed this goal before 2020."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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