By Jane LaTour; Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, 304 pp.
If we’re lucky, the next upsurge of the working class will be led by women. If we’re really lucky, some of those leading that upsurge will be the women in Jane LaTour’s new book Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City. LaTour is an award-winning labor journalist with a long history as a rank and file union activist. That last is significant, for Sisters reads like it was written by someone who’s spent a long time in the trenches.
Sisters is the story of two dozen or so women who were the first to work as firefighters, carpenters, pipe fitters, telephone technicians, and other such jobs in New York City. Most entered their respective fields in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when two clashing forces met in workplaces throughout the country. On the one hand, there was the women’s movement, a movement that broke down doors to work that was historically seen as off-limits. On the other hand there was a wall of male privilege and entrenched power that refused to willingly give the least bit of ground: unions, contractors, government bureaucracies, and the occasional mafiosi.
One result of the clash was hiring halls and job sites that were cesspools of hostility and obstruction. As the women in Sisters relate, women were taunted, threatened, and harassed. Working in jobs where danger and the need for cooperation are great, some of the women were even placed in life-threatening situations. Harassment anywhere is a serious issue. When it takes place amid heavy machinery or high up on the skeleton of a skyscraper, it’s as real as it gets.
Electrician Brunilda Hernandez describes an incident with a drunk co-worker who from the time she was hired did everything he could to make her life difficult. "[H]e threatened me," Hernandez recalled. "All the guys circled us. He was cursing me: ‘You son-of-a-bitch. Who the hell you think you are? You don’t belong here.’ I was so scared…. I was what? 19 maybe? I was skinny, five-foot-five, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to be killed.’"
Like the other women in Sisters, Hernandez persevered and ultimately triumphed and that is the real story of the book. Day after day, year after year they went to work, often without a female co-worker in sight, and did their jobs. Their move up the ladder of their chosen fields was made more difficult and took longer because of those who resented their presence. Some were sent to the least desirable workplaces to do the worst jobs; others worked with men who refused to teach the necessary skills of their trades. Despite that, virtually all eventually got to do work at a level that brought them a great deal of satisfaction. In addition, they made it possible for more women to follow them into those jobs.
None of the women in Sisters made it on their own and every one of them connects their advancement to the solidarity of others. Given the eventual class bifurcation of the movement, the degree of support that professional women provided their blue collar sisters in the 1970s is especially striking. Much has been written about the ultimate schism in the movement, but LaTour adds immensely to that discussion with a somewhat different take. For example, the fateful choice some made to emphasize the advancement of professional, mostly white women is neither the whole story nor was it an inevitability. Instead it has much to do with the decision of professional women’s organizations to cultivate funding sources, often at the expense of cross-class alliances.
To be sure, the bulk of the work in these alliances was always done by the blue collar women themselves. As related in Sisters, they built groups like Non-Traditional Employment for Women and organized at multiple levels for change. LaTour’s view is a bottom-up one—the entrenched changed unwillingly and only because of the tenacity of the women involved.
The women of color in Sisters were trailblazers in numerous jobs and LaTour does an excellent job of explicating the additional obstacles they encountered. Women of color were especially creative in coping with these obstacles. Sometimes an aggressive response was the best tactic; on other occasions it proved more beneficial to wait and fight another day.
Relationships between women of color and white women in the coalitions were not always smooth either and both LaTour and those she interviewed address this fact quite candidly. Tensions inevitably arose and they were not always worked out amicably. Still, the best testament that these were more frequently manageable disagreements than irreconcilable ones is provided by the reflections of those involved. Thirty years later, the women of color in Sisters look back quite fondly at the bonds of solidarity that were forged, and that is true for the bonds with whites as well as those with other women of color.
On work sites, the women sometimes received support from male co-workers. Some were willing teachers while others stood up to the harassment other men were dishing out. In some of the stories, this was especially true in the case of African American men who also had to traverse many obstacles. At the conclusion of the incident related above, for example, Brunilda Hernandez recalled the words of a Jamaican male co-worker. "He said, ‘Don’t worry, Bruni. I had your back.’ He had pulled a knife and had it down by his leg. And he said: ‘If that son-of-a-bitch touched you, I was going to get him’."
If the courage of the trailblazing women and the support they got from a broad spectrum is the most inspirational theme of LaTour’s book, then perhaps the most shameful piece of the story is where they apparently got none: New York’s unions. The deplorable conduct of so many from the International Brotherhood [sic] of Electrical Workers and the other unions specifically discussed in Sisters speaks for itself, but their villainy is by no means the whole story.
Where, after all, were the left-led unions like District 65 that many in New York’s labor movement so proudly pat themselves on the back about? Where were the leaders of female-majority unions like 1199? Were there no local presidents willing to pressure the obdurate in their fraternity, no officers willing to join a demonstration at a recalcitrant hiring hall? Reading between the lines of LaTour’s book, the answers are clearly no. That is a disgrace and it supports the view that many unions, at least at the top, function as little more than fiefdoms where rule number one is never ever do anything about how the other guy runs his ship (and in the 1970s they were most definitely all guys).
The stirring manner in which working class women and coalition-type organizations stepped into this breach evokes what Elizabeth Faue and other historians have called community-based unionism. Union bureaucrats appear in Sisters as either hostile or negligent, their organizations as ossified perhaps beyond repair. The extra-union activity LaTour describes so compellingly, on the other hand, served the women in her book well and workers in any number of circumstances would do well to heed it.
In addition to the important gender issues it raises, Sisters is rich with general issues of relevance to all workers. Here, for example, is how New York Telephone technician Ilene Winkler describes the zest with which she and co-workers tackled new assignments necessitated by technological change: "There was a lot of responsibility and autonomy. You got to figure out really interesting things and people were really into the job…it was like you were running the place yourself and people were conscientious." No bosses leading the way here, no supervisors riding workers who don’t want to work.
Sisters in the Brotherhoods is a gem of a book. With it, LaTour has given us important documentation of an inspiring piece of history that is too little known. Some of the women profiled are still pushing forward, either in their fields or in vital movement organizations. Wherever they are, newer generations of activists can stand securely on their shoulders as we reach for higher ground.