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Carpenters union pushes to increase female membership

Carpenters union pushes to increase female membership

'Sisters in the Brotherhood' seeks to diversify ranks of large trade union
Carpenters union pushes to increase female membership
Nicole Grodner, left, of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, is shown during an apprentice recruiting event Tuesday.
Photographer: John Cropley/Gazette Business Editor

SCHENECTADY — The labor council representing nearly 40,000 carpenters in five Northeast states brought its drive for female membership to the Capital Region on Monday and Tuesday.

The Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters offers an earning-while-learning path into the trade, with a six-week pre-apprenticeship course and a five-year apprenticeship. Both are free to participants. 

The pay rate for apprentices varies by region. In the Capital Region with Local 291, it starts at $15.47 an hour and increases annually until the apprentice becomes a journeyman earning $30 an hour. The pre-apprenticeship course covers essential topics such as math, safety, tools and skills. It is unpaid, but recipients are given a tool kit and work boots upon completion.

Council representative Nicole Grodner said the point of the meetings Monday and Tuesday in Albany, Troy and Schenectady was to increase female membership in the locals that make up the council. The locals, she explained, should reflect the population in the areas they serve. 

American organized labor, meanwhile, is trying to regain some of the size and influence it wielded at its height in the mid-20th century.

“We strongly feel that women and minorities are going to save the labor movement, almost,” Grodner said. 

To make that point perfectly clear, the carpenters’ recruiting effort is dubbed Sisters in the Brotherhood.

Tuesday’s meeting at Urban Co-Works in downtown Schenectady drew four prospective female apprentices. Grodner said she wished there were more, but understood the hesitation some women may have in joining the heavily male construction industry.

She speaks from experience: There were even fewer women in the trades when she started.

“It’s always been a predominantly male industry,” she said. “Ten years ago even, when I sat in my apprenticeship program, I was the only one. Today you won’t see that.”

The Long Island resident had no experience or family connection to carpentry but decided to try it when she learned of the pay and health/retirement benefits union membership carried.

Grodner hasn’t regretted it. She’s been working full-time for the union the last two years, but excelled at the construction work while she was doing that.

“I developed a real passion for the trade,” she said. “I was able to learn all the skills I needed to know about carpentry in the apprenticeship program. When I entered, day one, I had zero skills, no knowledge.”

Grodner also said she never ran into harassment as the only woman at a jobsite full of men.

“I never really had a bad experience like that. I know women who have, I personally haven’t. I kind of got the opposite, a lot of guys took me under their wing, really mentored me, taught me a lot about the trades.”

Among the applicants Tuesday was Tracian Gordon of Albany, a recent transplant from Brooklyn. 

“I’m in the process of a career change,” she said. “This really piques my interest.”

And it would be a significant change: She has been working as a program director at a daycare center.

“Everything builds on everything else,” she said. “I think I’m at a good time of maturity to chart a course.”

Gordon had considered going into real estate and may still do so in the future, but she wants to build her skills first. “If I go into real estate the carpentry would really complement that.”

Her father still works as a carpenter in her native Jamaica, but he imparted no skills to her, so she’s starting from scratch.

Gordon says she’s up to it physically at age 40. She works out regularly at the YMCA and placed third in her division in a 5K race last weekend.

Grodner said the most productive of the four Capital Region recruiting sessions was the final one, Tuesday afternoon in Albany. Eight applicants attended, compared with four Tuesday morning in Schenectady and only three between the two Monday sessions in Albany and Troy.

Training for Local 291’s new apprentice carpenters will be at the Northeast Regional Council’s training center on Corporate Circle in Albany, where Local 291 also has its headquarters.

It’s one of 14 such centers the Council operates in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, where the council has 13 carpentry locals and four specialized locals that total nearly 40,000 members.

Local 291 covers 14 counties in Northeast New York from Catskill to the Canadian border.

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