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Changing hearts critical to ending sexism, abuse

During the past month, the Tribune has explored discrimination and abuse against Oregon women attempting to make careers as line workers. Today, the Tribune spotlights electricians, a construction trade where gains for equality have been made.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Donna Hammond had to overcome blatant abuse in her struggle to become the second black woman journey-level electrician in Oregon.Here’s what Donna Hammond did when she was trying to break the color and gender barriers by apprenticing to become an electrician in the late-1970s.

“I had a name at work,” recalls Hammond, now 60. “Brown Sugar. And I would tell guys, ‘You can laugh, but don’t touch my body.’ “

One guy did, Hammond says. She was on a crew of journeymen building the Marriott Hotel downtown, fourth floor, no walls yet in place. Standing near the edge, she was waiting to catch the lift back to the ground.

“A guy pinches my butt,” Hammond says. “My natural reaction was to turn around and slug him. He almost went over the side of the building. No one touched me again.”

It was in one of those high-rise scissor lifts that Hammond, today a business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48, experienced one of the most poignant moments of her apprenticeship. Sixty feet up in the air, the journeyman she was riding with turned off the power, put his face in his hands and, according to Hammond, said, “I cannot do what they want me to do.” He had been instructed to wash Hammond out of the apprenticeship program no matter what. But his conscience wouldn’t allow him to do that.

Hammond was the second black woman in Oregon to become a journeyman electrician. When she started, there were few black men or women in any of the construction trade unions.

While line workers, iron workers and other trades in Oregon continue to make it hard for women to join their ranks, some of the trades have opened their doors. Hammond and her electrician colleagues think there may be lessons to be learned from their experiences that can be applied to the trades that still resist treating women as equals.

Today, about 6 percent of union journey-level electricians in the Portland area are women. Thirteen percent of electrician apprentices are women. Meanwhile, half of the construction trades in Oregon currently have no women apprentices, according to nonprofit Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.

Hammond worked as a union electrician for 20 years. Now her job includes negotiating contracts and inspecting job sites. Those job sites, and the prevailing attitudes of the men at them, have changed, she says.

“I wouldn’t have the job I have if we were the same as we were in 1978,” Hammond says.

PHOTO COURTESY: IBEW 48 - In the late 1970's Donna Hammond, here working on a junction box, had to prove herself tough as well as capable to supervisors who had been ordered to wash her out.Risky business

Hammond encountered much of the abuse women line workers talk about confronting today. Certainly she faced danger as a double trailblazer. One day, in her second year as an apprentice, Hammond was welding with about 15 amps in her equipment when suddenly sparks started flying from the rod on which she was working. She started brushing her hands against her head because she thought her hair was on fire.

Hammond says she looked around and seven or eight journeymen were silently looking at her. She looked at the welding machine and found it had been turned up to the full 70 amps while she was welding.

“Who did it?” she remembers thinking. “Nobody said anything, and they all walked away.”

Another day Hammond was told to join a black foreman — Omar — in disconnecting a transformer. They were told the power had been turned off. Omar said they should check the power anyway. The transformer was live — with enough electricity to kill them. Again, she scanned the area and found six or seven supervisors standing on a platform, watching.

“It was all a setup. Do you know what the headline would have been in the newspaper?” Hammond recalls with a laugh. “Black foreman and black apprentice killed on the job.” Nothing about the setup, she’s pretty sure.

When Hammond was working at a paper mill in Newberg, a journeyman insisted she always walk 10 paces behind him. “He didn’t want anybody to know that we were working together,” Hammond recalls. “He told me he hated black people.”

Hammond says that foreman eventually gave her the best evaluation she received during her entire four-year apprenticeship.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - In addition to negotiating contracts and inspecting job sites, Donna Hammond adds recruiting women and minorities into the electrical workers union.Pinups come up, then down

When Playboy pinup pictures started appearing over their workstations in the morning, Hammond and Charly Molden, the first black journeywoman electrician in Oregon, brought in Playgirl pinups and tacked them up nearby. Soon all the pictures disappeared.

“That was a huge moment,” says Keith Edwards, a long-time member of Hammond’s union and president of the IBEW minority council. “It showed (the men) what they were doing. They didn’t like seeing those naked guy pictures up there.”

And it was classic Donna Hammond, Edwards adds. “The thing about Donna and Charly was they were able to adapt without losing their identity,” he says. “Some women, and I think Jenna Smith (a line worker apprentice profiled in Week One of our series) is one. Toward the end of her apprenticeship she tried to get her identity back. Before that it was, ‘I’m going to go along to get along.’ Donna and Charly didn’t do that.”

Hammond’s size didn’t hurt in her early confrontations with men, says Ed Barnes, who was IBEW 48’s business manager in the ’80s, and was instrumental in integrating the local electricians’ union with women and minorities.

“She’s big enough of a lady that some of the fellows would not try to overwhelm her with any kind of talk,” Barnes says.

Barnes remembers Hammond always present at union picnics and union hall meetings. “She had a way of making everyone feel comfortable,” he says. “Donna is a person who reaches out. She’s a handshaking person.”

Barnes also recalls that IBEW 48 was among the first electrical worker unions in the country to host annual on-site job fairs as a way of introducing working with tools to young women who had never considered the trades.

Edwards, the first black business manager of Local 48, says at the first national electrical workers minority caucus in 1991, 47 black and women IBEW members showed up. Last year the same caucus met and there were over 600 blacks and women.

Hammond says workplace discrimination still occurs among electricians. But now, the union’s support systems are established and mostly accepted. “If there’s an issue on the job, it’s usually nipped in the bud,” she says.

But union recruitment of women and minorities is still far from what it should be, according to Edwards. He’s convinced that if the electrical union focused on finding women and minorities for apprenticeships, the overall number of union electricians around the country would not have dropped as precipitously as it has in recent years.

Electricians are not the only trade that has seen women make inroads. Highway construction is another area where gains for women have been made. Oregon is one of only a few states that reserve a portion of federal highway construction funds to help women and minorities break into the construction field.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and Oregon Tradeswomen have teamed up for a $200,000 Respectful Workplaces pilot project aimed at improving apprenticeship retention rates among women and minorities. The two-year project, with funding from the Federal Highway Administration, will seek to educate workers and supervisors about damaging workplace cultures — but will only be implemented in the highway construction trades.

Laws not enough

Hammond says the change she has seen with electricians was mostly a result of relationships, not government compliance reviews or lawsuits.

“I changed a culture one-on-one,” she says. “You can legislate anti-discrimination laws, but if you don’t change the heart, you haven’t changed anything.”

Nurturing relationships with supportive co-workers is key, according to Hammond. One time a foreman tried to wash her out, Hammond recalls, and 12 white men sent a letter up the chain of command supporting her.

“What this manager didn’t understand was my union membership trumped his whiteness,” Hammond says.

Humor helped, Hammond says. And thick skin. When she recruits women for apprenticeships, she tells them they probably will face some harassment. “On every job there’s going to be some bull crap,” she says. “You have to make a decision. Are you going to take bull crap for minimum wage, or are you going to take bull crap for $44 an hour?”

So does Hammond think she encountered more discrimination because she’s a woman, or because she’s black? The question nags a bit at Hammond. The answer she once provided, Hammond says, shows how tricky on-the-job discrimination can be to figure out.

Hammond once filed a workplace discrimination complaint against the city of Portland. The investigator asked if she thought she was being discriminated against because of race or gender.

“I said, ‘How do I know? All I know is (my manager) treats me differently,’” Hammond recalls. She gave the question a second thought before telling the investigator she had seen her manager treat other women appropriately and other blacks just fine. “I said, ‘I think it’s that I’m taller than him,’” she says.

Subtle sexism keeps women a step behind

Cari Ebbert wants to be clear. After five years as an apprentice and 12 years as a union journey-level electrician, she hasn’t confronted anything like the harassment and abuse that Donna Hammond had to deal with 35 years ago, or electrical line workers still encounter today.

But full equality for women trying to forge careers as electricians is still a ways away, according to Ebbert, who lives in North Portland. “We have exchanged outright misogyny and sexism for covert discrimination,” she says. “There’s less of it that’s visible, but it’s always just under the surface.”

Ebbert, a past board member of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., says the phrase “one-woman layoff” is common parlance at job sites. An example? She says she was working on a tall ladder with heavy tools, which felt a little unsafe. She is not a large woman. She went to her foreman and asked if she could switch tasks with one of the other electricians at the site. The next day, she didn’t have a job.

“That’s a one-woman layoff,” Ebbert says.

And it involves subtle discrimination, Ebbert says, that permeates the local electrical workers trade. She says during their apprenticeships, women don’t get trained in the same way. They often are relegated to simpler, repetitive tasks.

Ebbert recalls a job site a few years ago where she saw a black woman day after day putting in receptacles, a low-level job. The male apprentices were installing electrical panels and running circuits, more complicated work that involves problem-solving and attention to detail.

After discovering the woman was a high-level apprentice — level seven or eight out of 10 — and the men were level two and level three apprentices, Ebbert approached the contractor in charge of the job site. He told Ebbert that the black woman had become proficient at installing the receptacles and did them quickly. “She makes us a lot of money,” Ebbert recalls the contractor saying.

But the effect, according to Ebbert, is that the careers of women electricians get stalled. “Five years later, you end up with a journeyman who doesn’t have the skills to compete with everybody else on the job, with the 94 percent white male population,” she says.

That special treatment, in Ebbert’s view, keeps more women from becoming supervisors, and starts the day women begin their electrical worker apprenticeships. Often women have some catch-up to do at the start because they haven’t taken shop class in high school or worked with tools as much as men, she says. And often they never get past the resentment caused by that initial impression, even after they have caught up.

“We’re viewed as having fewer skills to start with,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked whether I got some special points to enter the apprenticeship for being a minority. So there’s already this assumption that you are not as capable as your male counterparts.”

All of which becomes doubly difficult in an industry where promotions, hirings and firings are almost all done by personal connection, without having to follow any standardized human resources policy.

“Imagine ‘Mad Men’ without the suits and politeness,” Ebbert says.

Next: Getting tough

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