Interview with ironworker Vicki O'Leary

24 September 2018 07:47

Can you tell us about yourself and how you became an ironworker?

Ironworking is the family business.  My brother and I are the third generation of Ironworkers. I got my start in the trade on a bet. I was working as a legal secretary for a law firm in Chicago. Over a family dinner one night, my brother bet me that I could not do what he and my father do. I am a competitive person with a stubborn streak so when my brother bet me I couldn’t do it, I decided I would. I applied at the hall and was accepted. It wasn’t easy, but I loved it immediately and passionately. 

I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t a difficult choice. I was systematic throughout my career. I knew that my apprenticeship alone wouldn’t be enough for a woman in a male-dominated craft. I didn’t want to just succeed – I wanted to excel.  In 2006, I went back to college. I worked days and took classes at night. When the safety person was retiring he asked if I could help with the safety. I was then asked if I would become the Environment, Health and Safety Coordinator. I was the first woman Ironworker ever to work for the City of Chicago in that position. That position took me off the job-sites as a rank and file worker and put me in a position of authority over them. It was then I started to realize that I could make more than a career for myself – I could make a difference.  

I was incredibly lucky – I was in a good local where my gender didn’t necessarily hold me back. But I wasn’t oblivious to how it COULD be on a jobsite for a woman or someone who didn’t fit the mould. Once I realized I could help change that, I decided that was the direction my path was going to take, and I’ve been walking it ever since.

You are now a full-time union staff, what would you say is the biggest difference and challenge compared to being a rank and file member?

The biggest difference is authority. Members – even Leaders – treat you differently when you have a title and the authority to go with it. It’s the difference between talking about change and helping to make change happen.  

As the first Safety and Diversity General Organizer for the Ironworkers International I hear all the stories now from members who have been harassed, bullied, abused, starved out or neglected. My biggest challenge is addressing the underlying issues – affecting real and lasting changes that make a difference for those members and improves our union as a whole. 

The agreement between the Iron Worker Union and the Ironworker Management Progress Action Cooperative Trust introducing paid maternity leave in 2017 created waves throughout the industry.  Can you explain?

The idea behind the MPP program is simple – create a much-needed program for our female members to address a longstanding issue.  Prior to the MPP program, women were often afraid to notify employers of pregnancies. Construction work can be dangerous and difficult.  It can pose a significant threat for miscarriage for a pregnant woman. Despite this fact, women would hide their pregnancy because many employers would lay off a woman as soon as they found out she was pregnant. And of course, this happened at a time when a woman needed her paycheck and health benefits the most. 

Our MPP program took that fear and cost out of the equation, making a career in the trades even more attractive for women. The spirit of the program is much more than just another piece of a benefit package. It is a singular statement to women in the industry that the Ironworkers values and wants them. And as the other Trade Unions begin to follow our lead, that message will be amplified and broadcast to an even larger pool of women that the Construction Trades with its’ family-supporting wages and inclusive benefits is a viable career choice.  Because the truth is, the construction industry doesn’t just want women – we NEED them.   

You frequently speak publicly about equal opportunities for women and people of color in the trades, why is this important to the industry and to workers in the building trades?

Diversity makes us stronger and improves our skills.  As we all know, there is a severe shortage of skilled labor in our industry and construction in general. One of the main reason this happened is that the industry has continued to focus on young, white men who grew up in construction families. 

That pool is drying up as fewer and fewer white men choose to enter or stay in construction related jobs. Unions have largely ignored the vast number of women and people of color available to perform the work who also want the career and benefits and opportunities that are possible in our industry.  Our maternity policy is one of the ways the Ironworkers Union says to women that we want you in our industry and we will invest in you and commit to your career.  

By adapting to the changing workforce in the industry and allowing the face of unions to become a real reflection of the workers in it, we can better support, protect and represent them – which is the entire purpose of unions.  A union is the people it represents.  Unions – including mine – need to embrace the changing workforce if they are going to survive.  

You are the Chair of the North American Building Trades Union (NABTU) Tradeswomen's Committee and NABTU will be organizing the 2018 Women Build Nations Conference, can you tell us more about it?

The event is the largest of its kind, with an expected attendance of over 2000 participants this year.  The conference is packed with skill-building workshops, speakers and activities.  We will be hosting the Tradeswomen’s Task Force Memorial this year.  We’ll also have rank and file tradeswomen speak about their own personal experiences and challenges being a female construction worker.  The conference will conclude with the Tradeswomen’ Policy Forum which is presented by the National Taskforce on Tradeswomen’s issues.  This year’s forum will focus on preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

The entire conference is geared around educating, inspiring and engaging women who work in the trades or are considering a career in the trades.  We hope to encourage better recruitment and retention of women for the construction workers through networking and peer mentoring.