Let’s go back in time and imagine a world, a culture, in which job categories were firmly divided between MEN and WOMEN. Women were restricted to pink collar jobs that paid too little to raise a family on or even to live without a man’s support. Even doing the same jobs, women were legally paid less than men. Married women were not allowed to work outside the home. Single women who found jobs as teachers or secretaries were fired as soon as they married. Black people were only allowed work as laborers or house cleaners.

This was the world we fought to change.

For the past half century I’ve been active in a movement to help women gain access to blue collar jobs that were closed to us. When we started, women were not allowed to work as bus or truck drivers, police officers, park rangers, firefighters, pilots, landscapers, printers, engineers, forklift drivers, warehouse stockers, or in the construction trades (and many more).

Although I was at first denied training and union membership, I made a good career as an electrician and I wanted other women to have the same opportunity. Our organizing is focused on union trades, which offer far better wages and working conditions. Training in union apprenticeship programs is free; there are no student loans to repay.

Our fight against discrimination and institutional sexism and racism has made some progress. In fifty years women have gone from zero percent to three percent in construction trades like carpenter, plumber, sheet metal worker, ironworker, and laborer. Tens of thousands of women across the country are now making good money in jobs previously reserved for men only.

And tradeswomen who have jobs today must thank Black workers who began the fight for jobs and justice.

The Black Freedom Movement has advocated for workplace equity since the end of the Civil War.

The movement gained power during and after WWII. A. Philip Randolph headed the sleeping car porters union, the leading Black trade union in the U.S. In 1940 he threatened to march on Washington with ten thousand demonstrators if the government did not act to end job discrimination in federal war contracts. FDR capitulated and signed executive order 8802, the first presidential order to benefit Black people since Reconstruction. It outlawed discrimination by companies and unions engaged in war work on government contracts. This executive order marked the start of affirmative action.

The fight to desegregate the workforce continued. In the early 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area, protesters organized successful picket campaigns against businesses that refused to hire Black people, including the Palace hotel, car dealerships, and Mel’s Drive-In. Many of the protesters were white students at University of California, Berkeley.

In August 1963, the March on Washington brought 200,000 people to the capitol to protest racial discrimination and show support for civil rights legislation. 

We got some laws.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Johnson, is the legal structure that women and People of Color have used to put nondiscrimination into practice. The 1963 Equal Pay Act, signed by President Kennedy, abolished wage disparity based on sex.

But change did not come quickly or easily.

Black workers at a tire plant in Natchez Mississippi were organizing to desegregate jobs. The CIO, Congress of Industrial Organizations, supported them in this fight. 

Wharlest Jackson won a promotion to a previously “white” job.

In 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act became law, Wharlest Jackson, a Black man, won a promotion to a previously “white” job in the tire plant and was murdered by the KKK. They blew up his truck as he was driving home from work. No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for this crime.

Wharlest Jackson was the father of five. His wife, Exerlina, was among those arrested for peacefully insisting on equal treatment during a boycott of the town of Natchez’s white businesses. She was sent to Parchman penitentiary.

Wharlest Jackson was just one of many who died for our right to be treated equally at work.

Tradeswomen are part of the feminist, civil rights, and union movements. 

We still experience isolation and harassment, and we continue to seek allies. We are still fighting occupational segregation.

Discrimination has not ended, but, because of decades of organizing, our work lives have improved. We owe much to the Black workers who sought equity in employment for decades before us.

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