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  • People of Color, Women Part Of The Changing Face of US Ironworkers
    Posted On: Jun 02, 2016

    By JoAnne Powers

    Although the construction industry was once nearly all-white and all-male, unions in the trades have taken aggressive steps to increase both racial and gender diversity in their ranks.  Bill Hohlfeld is a manager at Labor Press in New York City, a retired member of Local 46-L of the International Association of Ironworkers and a historian for the union.  Although there is still much progress to be made, he is proud of what the union has achieved in recent decades:

    [Bill Hohfeld]: “It’s a particularly disturbing stereotype to me, because it is so untrue for so long now.  The last 12 years of my career in the Ironworkers, when I was actually an apprentice instructor, in my class I was teaching not only the sons, but even the grandsons of people-of-color who were members of the local. We’re probably well into the third generation by now.  I would say that the major change probably began in the 1970s, accelerated quite a bit in the 1980s to the point that…large metropolitan area like New York City, approximately, I would say, sixty-five percent entering apprenticeship programs of the building trades across the board, are probably other than white male.  [Once the door is open to people, then family and friends of those people are obviously are subjected to that type of networking and understand.  People tell their nephew…people tell their neighbor when apprenticeship openings are available.]”

    In New York City the Ironworkers have been involved in a number of programs focused on expanding opportunities for women and people of color.  Hohlfeld sees a return to an organizing model aimed at bringing all workers into the union.  He cites the recent formation of Ironworkers Reinforcing Locals 846 and 847, which are taking back a lot of work that had been being done by non-union immigrant labor:

    [Bill Hohfeld]: “When those two locals were formed, they took all those people in and trained them and made them very much a part of our education, and we have a lot of bilingual training now.  So, there’s a real recognition that if people are out there doing this for a living, we want them in the fold…and that’s the only criteria for whether or not we want you as part of our membership.”

    With a diversifying workforce, Hohlfeld is very confident about the future of the union, saying the new generation of Ironworker leadership has a deep respect for and understanding of the need for equality.  And the face of the Ironworkers continues to change; in an industry still dominated by men, Hohlfeld recalls the first pregnant student in his classroom a decade ago:

    [Bill Hohfeld]: “I went on to see this woman graduate and carve out a really good career for herself and her family.  I’m around long enough to remember when that would have turned a lot of heads, and what I’m saying is it doesn’t turn heads anymore.  It’s just an accepted part of who we are.  So there’s technological change and there’s sociological change, and what I see right now at the head of our enterprise is a leadership that is very, very well-equipped to deal with both those types of changes and not only well equipped to do so, but willing to do so, and aware that they need to do so.”


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