The memorial for Teri
Bach held at New Freeway Hall (the Freedom Socialist Party’s Seattle
headquarters) on a summer day in 2005 was no solemn affair. Workers,
unionists, feminists, radicals, socialists and activists of every race and
gender packed the house to celebrate a woman they saw as a hero and pioneer.
Teri Bach, the first woman to become a journeyman lineman at Seattle City
Light, had touched many lives. Her colleagues, comrades and family eulogized
for hours on the impact she had made fighting sexism and racism on the job.
How did this woman find herself in a position to affect so many individuals
in a positive way? By breaking ground. In 1974, Teri Bach and nine other
young women opened an entire industry to their gender.
On June 24, 1974 ten
women began their first day of work at Seattle City Light, the city’s public
utility. The situation was remarkable because they weren’t secretaries. As
Electrical Trades Trainees (ETT) in a new City Light program, designed by
long time Seattle activist and self proclaimed Marxist-feminist Clara
Fraser, the women represented the first stab at gender integration of the
all-male, unionized, Seattle City Light electricians. These women would
become the first female linemen, sub-station constructors, cable splicers,
the first unionized female utility electricians in Seattle and the first in
They came from a variety
of backgrounds. Daisy Jones, Letha Neal, Jody Olvera and Patti Wong were
women of color. Angel Arrasmith, Teri Bach, Megan Cornish, Heidi Durham,
Jennifer Gordon, and Marge Wakenight were white. Their ages raged from 21
years old to 36, with some of them mothers, and some not, some married,
others single. Most of the trainees considered themselves feminists and a
few identified as Marxists as well.
Their past careers included waitressing, working at a laundry, as a
telephone operator and driving a bus, jobs which in the 1970s were often
Each competed against over 400 female applicants through aptitude tests and
interviews to be a part of this special ten woman program.
In addition to learning
a new and dangerous trade, their bid for integration lead the ETT
participants into engagement with City Light management, whose notoriously
anti-union superintendent Gordon Vickery morphed from a publicity-loving ETT
supporter into avowed ETT enemy halfway through the program. As well, the
union that represented the women, the International Brotherhood of
Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 77, reacted to gender integration with
periods of alternating resistance and assistance. All the demographics and
factors that play a part in the ETT program’s history spin a story that
intersects several ideological issues. Feminism, unionism and Marxism all
came together to influence a project that was unique in the deliberate
quality of its implementation and outcome. In comparison, many of the other
women’s training programs for traditionally male trades lacked some of the
social movement intersections that drove the ETT program foreward and were
less effective at combating sexist backlash as a result.
The history of America’s
gendered labor market intertwines the cultural stigmatization of women
through class and racial hierarchies. At the dawn of the twentieth century,
just 20 percent of all women worked outside the home.
Most women instead worked by raising children, doing housework, taking care
of old and sick family members, doing work on their family farm and
providing an often Christian ethos to the social fabric of the household.
All of this support at home enabled men to work harder and longer. Women
did all the domestic work to provide the market with hyper-productive male
workers, not to mention the fact that they raised the next generation of
workers and helped keep the family “biblewise” and conservative. These
gender roles were fundamental to the economic system and were thus
culturally glorified. The 19th century Fin-de-Siecle
art and literature portrayed women as fragile, angelic, tender, and
intimate. Women were considered clearly unsuited for working in the
unrefined outside world… unless they were women of color or immigrants
political struggle and changing markets, women began to enter the workforce
at ever increasing rates throughout the 1900s. By 2003, 60 percent worked
outside the home, mostly in white-collar jobs.
The highly paid, unionized, skilled trades have been the hardest nut for
women to crack. Jobs like the ones that the ETT participants struggled to
succeed in fall into this category. The women organizers of the American
Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)
did not themselves even see the need to for women to pursue trades work
until the 1964 passing of the Civil Rights Act. Their justification was that
women didn’t want access to these jobs, considered men’s jobs, because they
were either too dangerous or inconvenient.
The same excuse was used by employers to keep women out, though again race
played role in this situation as well. Employers were more willing to hire
minority women for dangerous “men’s” jobs and it was black women who
pioneered for their gender inside the automobile manufacturing, meat packing
and construction industries.
the rhetoric that women were not interested in trades work lay the fact that
they were aggressively discouraged from it by an industry that regarded them
as less productive than men. Susan
We’ll Call You if We Need You,
as well as her article on women in non-traditional fields published in
used oral histories to document that women in the trades were fired,
laid-off or denied employment because of sexist stereotypes, not because
they didn’t try. Male employers and workers throughout the 1970s perceived
women in the trades to decrease the productivity of a crew, require more
training, and supposedly reduce a project’s profitability. Eisenberg was
one of the first women electricians in the San Francisco Bay Area and her
oral history-based writing focuses on women’s experiences in a way that lets
the stories speak for themselves. Her research suggests that if the issue is
equality vs. profit, even in the short term, profit wins. Writ large, sexism
(as well as racism) is good business, both in terms of paying women less
than men and keeping workers divided over social issues and generally
To further contextualize
the ETT program, it is also important to understand Seattle’s political
climate in the early 1970s. Once called the “Jet-city,” and largely defined
by Boeing’s aerospace manufacturing plants, 1970s Seattle was blue-collar
and unlike the high-tech Seattle of today, with its armies of highly paid
software and bio-tech professionals. A school teacher back then who asked a
class, “Whose dad works at Boeing?” would see a forest of raised hands. In
this labor dominated time and place, workers enjoyed a quality of life and
sense of political power greatly diminished in today’s Seattle. Not yet
relegated to the distant suburbs by astronomical real-estate prices or
socially regimented by droning workplace routines such as 6 am start times,
most Seattle workers enjoyed a lively lifestyle in the Northwest’s cultural
center. At that time, workers could not conceive of having their break times
monitored, their privacy violated by the degrading practice of urine testing
by bosses in the name of “safety” so well known to unionized workers today.
Seattle City Light was no exception.
Formed in 1910, Seattle
City Light has employed union electricians, now represented by IBEW Local
77, since its early days. Like most AFL unions, the IBEW organized workers
by their craft. The apprenticeship program that trained electricians from
one generation to the next relied heavily on nepotism, with entry into the
trade largely passed down between (male) family members. The civil rights
movement of the 1960s helped to significantly change the way workers,
especially minorities, were hired into the IBEW as well as Seattle City
Coming on the heels of
the civil rights movement’s intervention into Seattle’s construction
industry in 1969 (see the
UCWA History Project), and a militant walkout staged by City Light
workers in 1974, the ETT program began in an environment charged by racial
conflict, as well as worker combativeness and solidarity. The political
period of the 1960s and early 1970s wasn’t just about the civil rights
movement, or feminism or the anti-war movement, either. It was a time of
political radicalism on all levels across the nation. Many of the white male
workers at Seattle City Light were themselves wrapped up in the era’s
upheavals and expressed themselves through job actions whose militancy was
much greater than today’s.
Feminism quickly added
itself to this charged environment. Outside of the ETT program, the first
women to integrate IBEW locals in the Seattle construction trades were
frequently involved in New Left political organizations. For instance:
Beverly Sims worked at the
Labor and Employment Law Office
(LELO) and became an
activist with the United Construction Workers Association (UCWA), a civil
rights organization dedicated to desegregating the building trades.
Janet Lewis, a feminist activist for women’s healthcare rights, and Sims
were the first women electricians to get their journeyman’s card in IBEW
the Electrical Trades
Trainee Program for Women
In 1973, amidst this
climate of radicalism and union strength, Clara Fraser was working for a
federal anti-poverty program as a job skills educator. Meanwhile, Mayor Wes
Uhlman, fearful that former Fire Department Chief Gordon Vickery would run
against him, appointed Vickery Superintendent of Seattle City Light in an
attempt to placate his rival. Ever the politicians, Vickery and Uhlman
decided it would be better to voluntarily hire a few women into
non-traditional trades at Seattle City Light rather than risk the type of
lawsuits brought against the construction unions and contractors by black
workers in the late 1960s.
They wanted to do a training program for women and they wanted it to succeed
where previous ETT programs targeting low-income and non-white male workers
had largely failed in the past. Clara Fraser, who was well known for her
feminist activism by this time, was recruited by Vickery to design the new
Fraser, born to a
Socialist Party member mother and anarchist father, joined the
Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) as a teenager. As a young woman, she
moved to Seattle and got a job at Boeing as electrician during WWII. Hardly
the popularized American icon of “Rosie the Riveter” doing a dirty job to
help the war effort, Fraser was a communist, anti-war activist and labor
agitator who helped organize the 1948 Boeing strike.
During the anti-communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, she was not only
fired from Boeing for her politics but physically removed from the property
by security and blacklisted. After being “found out” and fired from numerous
union jobs in the Seattle area, she was hired as a receptionist in a
psychologist’s office. When the FBI soon confronted her employers with
evidence of her communism, they, unlike many other employers faced with
similar intimidation, said they didn’t care because Fraser was a good
After seven years at the psychologist’s office, Fraser took a job at an
anti-poverty organization and that’s where she was when Seattle City Light
sought her out to design a new program to integrate women into the utility
as electricians. Though the utility considered it a risk to hire on a known
communist and labor leader, they chose to work with Fraser because they knew
she had both the experience training minority workers and the connections
inside the women’s movement necessary to make the program successful.
As the recruiter for the
first women hired to enter the electrical trades at City Light, Fraser made
sure to specifically target women’s organizations for applicants. In a
recent interview, former ETT participant Megan Cornish explained:
There was recently an
article in Seattle Woman magazine about women in the trades that
asked the question, ‘Why are the numbers of women dropping off?’ And several
people, including women, were quoted as saying, ‘Well, you just can’t get
them to apply.’ Well, Clara [Fraser] didn’t find it very had. She said,
‘Let’s see, women who want to be in a trade where there are no women now?
It’s probably going to be women who aren’t afraid to swim against the
stream.’ So she went to the feminist movement… and said, “Hey, I’m the
education coordinator at City Light and we’re going to have this program so
come apply.’ And over 300 women did apply.”
Radical Women (RW) was a
prominent feminist organization in Seattle’s women’s movement by the early
70s. It was a transitional organization of the “Marxist-Feminist” Freedom Socialist Party
(FSP), which was founded by Clara Fraser along with her husband Richard
Fraser in 1966 as a left split out of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party
What gives the FSP its unique, predominately female demographic is the fact
that with in a year of the young party’s inception, Dick Fraser was expelled
from the organization, causing all but three of the male members to quit,
and leaving the FSP as a woman-dominated Marxist-feminist organization.
Of the hundreds who applied for the ETT program, three of those accepted
were RW members. Others were affiliated with the Feminist Coordinating
Council, a large coalition of feminist groups which included NOW, Radical
Women, independent feminists and others.
organizations with goals similar to the ETT program were in effect in the
1970s but didn’t have the same quality of planning or outcomes. Mechanica,
an organization formed by Gay Kiesling, started up around the same time as
the ETT program with the goal of getting women to apply for apprenticeships
in the exclusively male construction industry. Unfortunately, for many of
the same reasons that previous ETT programs at Seattle City Light failed—
such as the isolation of participants and lack of targeted training— most
groups which sought to get women into building trades didn’t set their
participants up for long term success.
Fraser designed the ETT
program to prepare the women for the job through two weeks of classroom and
physical training. She met with many of the crew chiefs, who ran the work
out in the field, and asked them what were the most important things to know
before going out on the job. With this information she compiled briefings
and pamphlets on basic utility electrical theory and important safety
measures. To get the women closer to where they needed to be in terms of
physical strength, Fraser researched the most rapid and effective means of
physical training, which turned out to be swimming.
A curriculum, which included swimming, was proposed to Seattle City Light
management and accepted. Also, Fraser thought it was crucial that a
significant cohort of women be hired together. The earlier ETT programs for
minority men only brought in one new worker at a time. The isolation of
being the only minority would often become too much and most dropped out
with in six months.
Fraser insisted the women’s ETT program include a minimum of ten trainees.
In the past, the male trainees weren’t allowed to join the union until a
probationary period had elapsed. This time, the trainees would be IBEW Local
77 members from day one with their own bargaining unit. Lastly, the earlier
ETT programs had rules stipulating that applicants must be from a
disadvantaged background, including a maximum on the years of education that
they could have completed before applying. This rule was challenged so that
college educated women, which many of the applicants were, could be
considered if they were under-employed.
One of the trainees had her university degree but was making $3.00 an hour
working as a laundress. Both Beverly Sims and Janet Lewis had their
university degrees before they joined IBEW Local 46 in the early 70’s as
construction electricians and to this day a significant number of women who
choose to enter non-traditional trades are already highly educated.
After over a year of
planning, and just weeks before the trainees were to begin the program, a
fierce walkout shook Seattle City Light.
 The issue at hand was workers’ control of
their working conditions. Vickery had instituted a list of rules on worker’s
conduct that many considered draconian. That two long time electricians were
disciplined by the superintendent for taking a thirty minute coffee break,
instead of the officially allocated fifteen minutes, set off a ten day
walk-out by over 1000 Seattle City Light employees on April 10, 1974.
During the course of this job action, which occurred just two months before
the start date of the ETT program, most of the 80% female Seattle City Light
clerical staff, who were not represented by IBEW Local 77, joined the
walk-out. Their support was crucial to effectively shutting down the
utility. The instigator of this solidarity action was none other than Clara
Relegated to the lowest paid positions with little hope of advancement,
women at the Utility had plenty to be dissatisfied with and no affection for
Vickery who was brought to Seattle City Light to cut costs through wage
freezes and work speed-ups.
This 1974 “Coffee Break Walk-out” was a success. Vickery’s new set of work
regulations were repealed for the time being and the workers went back on
the job with a new sense of empowerment and openness. This atmosphere of
unity and victory helped ease male-female tensions as the ETT women started
working with the crews in the following months.
Unfortunately, IBEW Local 77 failed its promise to organize these women
workers like they said they would. The women’s solidarity went largely
un-recognized and as a result many clerical workers did not support Local
77’s 1975 strike, which ended in bitter defeat.
Soon after the
successfully 1974 walkout, day one on the job for the trainees started with
a press conference. Vickery posed with the women for a photo shoot and made
grand declarations like, “any one of you could be superintendent of City
Light some day.”He
also made the statement, “I won’t pretend it’s the most popular program
we’ve ever had at City Light, but it’s a very important one”
– hinting that hostility to integration existed among the
unionized field crews.
 In reality, according to former trainees, most
of the men’s initial responses to the program and the presence of the women
were positive. Fraser had made a point of ensuring that the trainees were
seen as a part of the unionized workforce. The union was already indebted to
her for the role she played in the walk-out and a sense of unity pervaded
the workforce in those days. Male workers’ hostility was reserved for
Vickery— for now.
Yet there were minds to
be changed. City of Seattle Equal Employment Officer Joan Williams told
reporters that “The men on the crews, well, they’re not all stupid or
sexist, but they don’t have the information in their memory banks to deal
with working with women.”
While the linemen were friendly in general, some of them didn’t believe that
women could do the work. Why would women be able to? The industry had
evolved in a way that excluded women and offered no provisions to accentuate
women’s strengths or accommodate their physical and social differences.
Megan Cornish remembers being dared by a journeyman to pull a very heavy
feeder cross-arm to the top of a power pole. Never having received any
training in the task, she accepted the challenge out of pride and surprised
the gawking men by haphazardly rigging the arm and using all her body weight
to pull it to the top of the pole instead of just her arms.
Today women in non-traditional fields still constantly find themselves being
“tested” in similar ways.
Despite the hard work of
the trainees, the careful planning of Fraser and initial acceptance by union
brothers, the women faced serious obstacles to successful integration from
the beginning. The walkout had poisoned relations between Fraser and
Vickery. Vickery took out his frustration on Fraser’s ETT program. Just a
week after starting, all training was canceled by management: no more book
learning, no swimming, it was out to the field ready or not. Upon getting
word that their training had been canceled, most of the trainees, led by
Daisy Jones, the oldest and a natural leader, marched up to Vickery’s office
and demanded an explanation.
Dissatisfied with his response, they soon filed a complaint with the city’s
Office of Women’s Rights saying that they were being denied the full two
weeks of training that male trainees had received in previous years. The
justification for paying trainees a dollar an hour less than lineman
helpers, the typical entry level field position at Seattle City Light, was
that what was lost in pay would be made up for in training. During the same
week their training was canceled, Clara Fraser was removed from the position
of Training Coordinator, costing the trainees their main advocate.
Weeks later, an employee
meeting was called by the “coffee break walk-out” leaders to rally for
demands that were still unmet, including the ouster of Vickery. Most of the
trainees attended, and a few made statements of solidarity with their fellow
workers. They all knew that the support of the crews was vital to their
success and they were better off standing together with the other workers
despite their vulnerable position with management. The rally proved to be
the last straw with Vickery, who called the women into the office the next
week. Stating they didn’t seem very happy and were causing a lot of trouble,
he proceeded to hand out a loyalty oath for each to sign promising that she
would carry out any duty required by management without complaint if she
wanted to keep her job.
Out of fear, a few women signed the oath on the spot but the majority of ETT
participants took it with them so a lawyer could look it over. In the end,
those who had not already signed added a paragraph to the document stating
that by signing they were not relinquishing their constitutional rights,
before submitting the signed oath to management.
After a year of working
as trainees and an endless stream of political battles, most of the trainees
were essentially fired. A letter went out “congratulating” them on
“completing” the program and wishing them luck in future employment. So much
for, “Someday you can be superintendent at City Light.” The abrupt,
politically-motivated layoffs were meted out to each participant with the
exception of Patti Wong, who distinguished herself as pro-management, and
Jennifer Gordon, the top scoring participant on the civil service
proficiency tests. Keeping a token woman or two helped divert attention from
the idea that the firings had been gender-based. Jennifer Gordon, however,
quit City Light soon afterwards because she felt discriminated against.
During the same period, City Light laid off Clara Fraser, officially due to
budget cuts. Seven years later, the courts determined, in a lawsuit filed by
Fraser, that her termination had been more akin to a political firing.
After the layoffs, the ETT women amended their complaint with the Office of
Women’s Rights to include their dismissals.
Marxism, Feminism, and Race
The participants of the
ETT program shared a sense of camaraderie because of their common situation
and the fact that they spent so much time together, but they did not agree
on tactics. While the voice of Radical Women certainly rang loud and clear
from the program’s designer Fraser and the three active RW members (Bach,
Cornish and Durham), their program was not the only set of political beliefs
adhered to by ETT women. Daisy Jones, who led the women in most of their
early battles, was a school teacher from California who had been involved in
the civil rights movement there for years and had her own ideas. Definitely
a militant, she was not a member of Radical Women. Other women in the group
identified with more overtly bourgeois strains of feminism than the
“socialist feminist” RW. One of the ten participants, Wong, who didn’t
consider herself a feminist at all, allied with Vickery and management, and
openly criticized the militancy of the program in the papers.
The Marxist tendency inside the ETT program did, however, end up providing
the glue that held the project together. With the program disbanded, the
political and organizational coherence of a group like Radial Women was
crucial in sustaining the political fight to get their jobs back.
Along with gender and
class questions, the issue of race also finds prominence in ETT history. The
experiences of the black women trainees in particular depict the inescapable
centrality of racism in American history. Letha Neil, the first and only
black, female cable splicer at Seattle City Light was also the last of the
ETT participants to turn out of the apprenticeship and reach journeyman
status. Neil was a hard worker and never made any serious mistakes on the
job. Rather, she was discounted because of her race. Megan Cornish was
surprised at Neil’s memorial after her recent passing in 2005 to hear so
many eulogies referring to her big heart, big smile and big personality. On
the job, Neil was reserved, never known to make a stink or tell a joke,
perhaps never feeling like she could be herself.
It’s no wonder considering the treatment she received as a black woman at
Seattle City Light. Early on in her training, a crew chief dubbed her “the
cannon ball, because she was short, round and black.”
In another example of degrading racism from a superior on the job, as Neil
walked ahead of the rest of the crew with another ETT woman her roll of
black electrical tape fell out of her tool belt; her crew chief yelled, “Hey
Letha, your ass-hole just fell out!”
Race affected Daisy Jones in another way. Early on, a leader and
spokesperson for the ETT participants, Daisy Jones had no trouble sticking
up for herself. Constantly harassed, one day after one insult too many she
shut her crew inside a job shack and locked the door.
But when she heard the ETT participants politically targeted “layoffs” were
coming after a year in the program she didn’t have the privilege of waiting
around for an answer from the Department of Women’s Rights review board. A
single mom of three kids, Jones had to move on to a new paycheck fast and
quit Seattle City Light to take a job at King County Metro driving a bus. As
a result, when the women were finally rehired, Jones was not eligible
because she had technically quit under economic duress.
Racism wasn’t just used
against non-white ETT women. In one instance, Teri Bach was called into
Vickery’s office after an anonymous complaint from “A PO’ed citizen” who
claimed he witnessed a four member crew with “a Negro and a girl” working on
it. The letter claimed, “The Negro couldn’t keep his hands off the girl. In
the 28 minutes I spent observing some nearby construction I noticed the
Negro standing, smoking and publicly fondling the girl while the other two
worked.” Bach was given a three day suspension for her refusal to cooperate
with an investigation into that and another anonymous complaint. She told
the Seattle Times, “I considered the charges leveled against me
totally outrageous… In addition I protested the harassment inflicted on me
and fellow workers by management’s repeated investigations of anonymous
A struggle from the
beginning, the ETT participants’ problems didn’t end with the termination of
their program. They fought to get back the jobs they were entitled to— not
just trainee positions, but the opportunity to become journeymen
electricians. After adding their “lay-offs” to the previously filed
complaint with the Office of Women’s Rights they took political fight to
repeal the layoffs to the next level: a publicity war. In the year before
the women got their jobs back, Heidi Durham remembers feeling as though
there was an article in the press about the trainee women nearly every week.
In fact, numerous articles were printed in both the mainstream and
independent media on their case against Seattle City Light, many of which
favored the women. The issue became a rallying cry for the broader Seattle
women’s movement, with support coming from the Feminist Coordinating
Council, an influential coalition of feminist groups. Mayor Uhlman’s
unsuccessful 1976 campaign for Washington State Governor was in no way
improved by the ETT scandal. While he was able to, and did, present himself
as a friend to women voters in Eastern Washington, his support of Vickery
against the women severely tarnished his reputation as a progressive with
the much more liberal and influential voters of Western Washington.
Less than year after
their layoffs, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported July 9, 1976
that “a citizen tribunal this morning will order reinstatement of six women
as electrical lineman helpers at City Light.”
This was an astounding victory for the women who received back pay, benefits
and damages that, when combined with the payment of their lawyer’s fees,
totaled over $100,000.
Additionally, the six women were made eligible to begin the apprenticeship
programs that City Light would be required to offer them as a part of the
While things were
finally going well for the women, the male electricians at Seattle City
Light sustained a painful defeat. A 1975 strike ended on management’s terms,
with not a single union demand met. Not only would the six women return to a
job with sub-standard wages compared to utility workers in the rest of the
state. They were also joining an angry workforce whose recent defeat stood
in marked contrast to the women’s victory.
Heidi Durham recalled that “they were angry because we fought and we won,
and they fought but they lost.”
In addition, Vickery was so upset at being forced to rehire these women— who
he regarded as traitors and agitators— that he deliberately set them up in
situations where they were assured failure, and in one case paved the way
for to Durham’s life-threatening workplace injury.
After the rehire, the
remaining six women were allowed to apply for apprenticeships. Typically a
few different programs are available at Seattle City Light, but that year
only the most physically strenuous one, the lineman’s apprenticeship, was
made available. The three RW affiliated women, Bach, Cornish and Durham were
the only ones to apply. Heidi Durham was no frail girl. The youngest and
strongest of the group, she was a natural for the job. Yet Vickery
deliberately set her up to fail by putting her on a crew with a known racist
and sexist bigot (Frank Caraback) as its chief.
 Part of a crew chief’s responsibility is to
evaluate the quality of an apprentice’s work on a monthly basis and submit a
review to management. In addition to the sexist remarks and lack of
appropriate training Durham was subjected to, she repeatedly received poor
reviews that didn’t accurately represent the quality of her work. One day,
under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform, she was working as fast as
she could climbing up and down power poles while her journeyman worked off a
bucket truck across the street. In those days, linemen were not allowed to
use a safety harness because it was too slow and instead “free-climbed” the
poles. On the way down the pole Durham’s boot hit a knot in the wood and
bounced off. She lost her grip, fell 28 feet and landed in a sitting
“Her accident was very
much due to the persecution she was facing on the crew she was on,”
remembers Cornish, who was working on a pole across town when the accident
happened. “I remember that the lineman on my crew that was the most hostile
to me came up to me at the top of the pole I was working on, in his bucket
truck and said, ‘I hear your friend fall down, go boom.’ Heidi had just
broken her back. It still makes me furious, that S.O.B.”
Lying in the hospital,
where she spent months and was initially told she would never walk again,
Durham began to wonder what her union, IBEW Local 77, had to say about the
accident. The official safety report blamed her for the accident,
essentially, she recalled, because she didn’t listen to the advice of her
union brothers and get out of the trade. After reading this, a furious
Durham encouraged Bach and Cornish to attend the next union meeting and
demand that the report be rescinded. Their motion failed.
Hostility to the women
electricians had grown both in the union and workplace since their return.
After Durham’s injury, it was open season on the rest of them and the
torment increased palpably. But the opposition they encountered wasn’t
total. Eventually a committee of seven Local 77 brothers re-opened the issue
of the report. Again the motion lost, this time by a narrow margin. The
women felt the only thing left to do to combat the union’s bigotry would be
to sue. But they didn’t out of principle, deciding “It was not worth it.”
IBEW Local 77 was, after all, their union despite its immense flaws.
Perhaps through their Marxist understanding of capitalism, they decided not
drag the organization that represented their class interests through the
Meanwhile, Clara Fraser
was battling Seattle City Light to get her job back on the charge that she
was discriminated against due to her sex and political beliefs by Vickery
and City Light management. In 1982, after a seven year fight buoyed by a
favorable ruling by Seattle’s Human Rights Department, a $30,000 dollar
settlement that was later revoked by the City Council, and a two year appeal
process that finally landed the case in Superior Court, Fraser got her job
at City Light back. In addition, she won $53,000 in back pay and damages,
plus 12 percent interest, plus attorney fees for a total of $135,265.14.
On one hand, the success
of the ETT program can be measured by the rate of retention and career
progress seen by its participants. Unlike the building trades, women have
fared somewhat better in in City Light. While many of the young women who
go into construction trades view the experience as positive step in their
careers, or a way to learn some major life lessons and make a bit of money
before they move on to other things,
most of the ETT participants stayed in the industry and ended up retiring
from City Light. Construction electrician Janet Lewis in some way is the
exception that proves the rule. Lewis spent time as a contractor, L & I
inspector and lawyer but essentially never left the trade and is today a
Business Representative for IBEW Local 46.
However, as of the Summer of 2006, no woman construction electrician has
ever retired from Local 46 with the 30,000 hours needed to collect a full
The women who
participated in the ETT program fared much better. Megan Cornish, who never
saw herself as particularly suited to line-work, became the second woman
power station operator at Seattle City Light soon after Durham’s injury,
continuing in a union job that entails performing switching operations at
the sub-stations to rout the power on the lines. (Joann Simmons holds the
title for first power station operator, which actually made her the first
field worker as well because she started working in the Skagit long before
ETT program. Simmons was a pioneer, but she was also an anomaly.) Despite a
dramatic recovery from her injury, Heidi Durham never returned to the
physical level necessary for line-work. Seattle City Light offered her an
administrative position but she refused, insisting that they find a place
for her in the field earning the wages she was accustomed to. She eventually
joined Cornish as a power station operator before moving on to become the
first woman power dispatcher, a position of significant authority and
responsibility. The power dispatcher ensures that a power line is
de-energized before a line crew works on it. Surely more than one lineman
who had abused her in the past learned the lesson that good union workers do
not hurt their sisters and brothers, as they began work on a line that they
had to trust she had de-energized.
Teri Bach worked as a journey lineman until her neck was broken in a
horrific industrial accident. A large tree limb fell directly onto her head
as she worked in a bucket truck miles outside the city. She knew that she
had been seriously hurt and that if she moved her head it would be the end,
so she and a brother from the crew held her head still until they arrived at
the hospital. After her recovery, she became City Light’s first woman cable
splicer. While working on a downtown underground crew, she met her future life partner,
Gordon Hamilton, and taught him a thing or two about the world.
Eventually the women
also received a modicum of recognition from the union. No ETT participant
ever became a union official, but occasionally when they needed someone who
would really stand up for a member during a grievance process, especially if
the issue of gender or race was involved, the union would look to one of the
RW members in particular.
At the time of their retirements, IBEW Local 77 held a special ceremony for
the ETT participants thanking them for their groundbreaking work and long
records as good union members. The plaques they were presented with were
addressed to, “Our Very Own Radical Socialist Bitches” referring to an
incident when a bigoted union official was busted calling the women that in
the late 1980s. After hearing of their “nickname”, they showed up at the
next union meeting with boxes full of “Radical Socialist Bitch” buttons and
by the time the meeting was brought to order nearly every union member in
attendance was sporting one.
Yet despite the positive
legacies of the women’s struggles, the ETT program failed because the
industry was never opened to more than a handful of women. The first ETT
program for women in 1974 was also the last. Seattle City Light was willing
to let a few women into the trade, but was much less interested in
challenging the sexist culture that thrived there or engaging feminists on a
continuing basis. No other woman was hired by the utility for nearly ten
years after the program began, until, in the midst of Fraser’s case to get
her job back, Radical Women started to push the issue of female hiring as
well. Eventually the city’s Office of Human Rights became involved and that
helped open the door up again. Yet the women have never enjoyed more than
token representation in the utility trades, never exceeding eight percent of
the total workforce according to one estimate.
Though RW had pushed to
get City Light to hire more women in the early 1980s, the women City Light
hired after the termination of the ETT program had different agendas than
many of the original ETT participants. With the women’s rights movement of
the 1970s in decline, they tended to be less interested in the explicit goal
of challenging sexism and more interested in making a good living. Cornish
recalls that the second wave of women to work at Seattle City Light were not
activists. They would try to fit in and be “one of the guys” and often the
friendliest women were the first to be driven out.
Durham remembers an occasion when she was a power dispatcher and a new batch
of lineman helpers was brought in to get a tour of dispatch, and one woman
in the group approached her and thanked her for her pioneering role. This
was unusual, however. New women hires generally got a lecture from someone
on their crew to the effect of, “Stay away from the ETT women. They’re
This kind of warning sent a message to new hires that they would not do
well, or perhaps would not be respected by their work teams, if they
continued the activism that the ETT women pioneered.
Despite the heroic
efforts of the program’s participants attempting to de-segregate the
industry, there hasn’t been much actual progress since then. The same can be
said for the pioneering women in the unionized construction trades whose
numbers nationally hover in abysmally low 1-3 percent range.
It’s as if the door closes behind every woman who manages to open it, never
open long enough for a critical mass of women to enter the trade and change
the workplace culture, and leaving the women who make it in dire isolation.
Yet women have broken into many other male dominated industries. Once upon a
time, nearly all occupations were strictly male and now the majority of
American women work outside the home. What is it that has made gender
integration so difficult in these highly paid unionized trades? Perhaps it
is that these jobs are highly paid and, because of their union contracts the
wages are not very susceptible to degradation. Often when women enter a job
field, “colonization” occurs, a phenomenon in which men leave , the job
becomes predominately female, and wages plummet. A classic example is the
field of gynecology. What used to be a highly paid medical specialty lost
its prestige after being opened to women. Now male doctors are more apt to
seek a higher paid specialty such as cardiology or plastic surgery which
hasn’t been opened up.
A capitalist market economy has no interest in integrating its workforce
unless there is a profit incentive. Employers rarely want to open up
traditionally male-dominated jobs to women except to drive wages down. This
has the double effect of excluding women from some of the best-paid jobs, as
well as pressuring feminist movements into fighting with male workers for a
piece of a shrinking pie.
Another reason why women
have not succeeded in the electrical trades despite integration efforts is
that the attempts have not focused on significantly changing the trade to
accommodate women. Concrete cultural and physical obstacles stand in the way
of women wanting to pursue a career as an electrician. After all, no reason
exists why most healthy women wouldn’t succeed as electricians, and even
flock to the well-paid trade, with proper accommodation. For instance,
hurdles such as the inability to match work hours with daycare availability
could be remedied by more a more flexible work schedule or at-work child
care facilities. Paid leave for pregnant women and new mothers and fathers
would allow women to work and have families regardless of their personal
situation. And of course any comprehensive health plan would need to cover
abortion. The gap in physical strength between some men and some women could
be surmounted by changes in material designs to favor lighter, easier to
work with materials, or by the advancement of tool technology, or by simply
having workers pair up for more physically challenging tasks. This would no
doubt decrease the incidents of injury among male workers as well. Different
reproductive health issues between men and women, such as the amount of
lead, mercury, radioactive materials and other toxins a person of
reproductive age can safely be exposed to, should also be held to the
highest standard. Just because a man might not be as likely to father a
disfigured or mentally retarded child because of toxin exposure does not
mean that exposure is healthy. The reason for the continuation of all these
factors that discourage women from joining the electrical trade is that
making the changes to nullify them would interfere with profit. Ultimately
the responsibility for ensuring these changes lies with the union
leadership. It is their duty to represent the interests of the working class
against the interests of the bosses on an economical level.
Integrating the utility
and building trades presents a challenge to the union leadership. It cannot
be an either/or situation. Their responsibility is to both defend working
conditions, like wages, and make the trade materially, socially and
culturally accessible to workers regardless of gender or race.
Unfortunately, that’s not what they did in the 1970s and it’s not what
they’re doing now. Clara Fraser’s explicit understanding of the profit
system, with her perspective on union culture and the needs of minorities,
gave her an advantage in implementing a successful albeit limited
integration program which the average trade union official lacks. Or as
Heidi Durham put it in a recent interview, “Organized labor has a tremendous
role to play but we can’t accomplish it with the current leadership of the
AFL-CIO. The ones who want to please business and government are the ones
who are holding us back.” More, better and continuous ETT programs may not
be enough to fully open the trades to women, but the movement inside Seattle
City Light that happened as a result of the ETT program is definitely worth
Copyright (c) Nicole
HSTAA 499 Winter 2006
Teri Bach Memorial Video, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History
Project Collection. July 24, 2005.
“Women Enter the Electric Circuit.” Seattle Times, June 25,
Heidi Durham, interviewed by Nicole Grant, November 7, 2005. http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/durham.htm
Erin VanBronkhorst. “Women Trained for Electrical Trades.”
Pandora, Vol. 4, No. 15, July 1974
Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice
and Social Rights in Modern America. (Princeton, N.J. :
Princeton University Press, 2004) p. 187
Susan Eisenberg. We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of
Women Working Construction, (Ithaca: Cornell Press, 1998).
Susan Eisenberg. “Women Hard Hats Speak Out.” The Nation,
Vol. 249, No. 8, p. 272
Mark Grant, interviewed by Nicole Grant, April 18, 2006.
Nicole Grant. “The History of Seattle’s Electrical Workers Minority
Caucus in the Labor Movement.” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor
History Project. http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/EWMC.htm
Janet Lewis, Interviewed by Nicole Grant, April 13, 2006. http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/janet_lewis.htm
Clara Fraser; Introduction by Joanna Russ. Revolution She Wrote,
(Seattle, Red Letter Press, 1998)
Megan Cornish, intervew by Nicole Grant, October 20, 2005. http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/cornish.htm
“The Legacy of Richard S. Fraser, Revolutionary Integrationism: The
Road to Black Freedom.” Workers Vanguard, No. 864, February
A Victory for Socialist Feminism: Organizer’s Report to the 1969 FSP
Conference, Second Edition (Seattle: Freedom Socialist Party
Suzanne Schilz. “City Light Short-Circuits Sex Bias.” Pandora,
Vol. 4, No. 12, March 19, 1974.
Beverly Sims. Interviewed by Nicole Grant. May 25, 2005. http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/sims.htm
For more information about the walkout at City Light, see this
oral history at historylink.org.
Don Tewkesbury. “History of Coffee Break Case.” Seattle PI,
April 13, 1974.
“City Light Women in Low Paying Jobs.” The Seattle Times,
October 24, 1974.
“Women Enter the Electric Circuit.” Seattle Times, June 25,
Schilz. “City Light Short-Circuits Sex Bias.”
Katie Robinson. “City Light Trainees Fight Layoffs.” Pandora,
Vol. 5, No. 11, October 1975.
Debby Lowman. “Court Told City Light Training Favored Men.”
Seattle Times, April 20, 1976.
Maria Taylor. “City Light Switches Speed on Layoffs.” Seattle Sun,
August 13, 1975.
Lee Moriwaki. “Sparks Fly Over Training Program.” Seattle Times,
August 8, 1975.
Lee Moriwaki. “Sparks Fly Over Training Program.” Seattle Times,
August 8, 1975.
Maribeth Morris. “Reversal For CL on Women.” Seattle PI, July
“$100,000 Payday for City Light Trainees” Seattle Times,
December 14, 1976.
“Tuai Supports City Light Workers Wage Demands.” Seattle Times,
October 23, 1975.
Janet Sutherland. “The Politics of Persistence.” Freedom
Socialist, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall 1982.
Teri Bach Memorial Video.
Barbara Byrd. “Women in Carpentry Apprenticeship: A Case Study.”
Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, p. 3, Fall 1999.
Naomi Barko. “The Other Gender Gap.” American Prospect, Vol.
11, No. 15, June 19, 2000.
Trainees tour City Light power station. Pandora, July, 1974. p.6
(Click on images to enlarge)
Seattle Times. August 8, 1975.
Video Oral Histories
(Click on images to see brief biographies and interviews)
(Click on images to read articles)
Seattle Times. June 25, 1974
Seattle Times. August 6, 1974.
UW Daily. October 15, 1974.
Seattle Times. October 24, 1974.
Pandora, March, 1975. p.2
Pandora, August, 1975. p.9
Seattle Sun. August 13, 1975.
Seattle Times. September 10, 1975.
Seattle Times. September 14, 1975.
Seattle Times. April 20, 1976.
UW Daily. April 29, 1976.
Seattle Times. July 17, 1976.
Seattle Times. August 27, 1976.
Report by Heidi Durham, 1976.
Clara Fraser & City Light
Seattle Post-Intelligencer. October 3, 1975
Freedom Socialist. March 1, 1980.
Context: "The Workers vs. Gordon Vickery"
Seattle Post-Intelligencer. April 13, 1974.