As Women’s History Month comes to a close, Epicenter’s Danielle Hyams chatted with two (badass) female union workers, Michette Dennis and Caridad Castro, about what it’s like to work in a male-dominated industry, misconceptions about unions and more. Dennis, 37, is a laborer with Local 79 and vice president of 100 Black Construction Workers and Castro, 47, is a member of the NYC District Council of Carpenters and instructor at its training center, and chairperson of the local Sisters in the Brotherhood Committee.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter: What led you to union work? Is this type of work something you envisioned yourself doing from a young age?
Dennis: No, not in a million years. But I do know that I didn’t see myself at a desk, or being a cashier. I didn’t see me doing what they would put a woman in a bubble to do. I always knew I would burst that bubble and walk right through and create a pathway for us that like to get dirty.
I was in high school at the time and I was in a program that taught you different trades so I chose to take up a trade in electrical installation. Fast forward, I finished high school, but I still wanted to finish up on my certificate. And I found a pre-apprenticeship program to educate you on construction and what the union is and construction. And after the program ends they take you to a bunch of different unions. So I was intrigued by that.
Castro: I got my start quite accidentally in construction. When I went to Job Corps in 1995 I went there, like many students, looking for a job. I ended up taking a bookkeeping class. And at the end of Job Corps, they send you off for a six-week internship and I got sent to an electrical contracting company. And I didn’t think anything of it, quite frankly, until my boss sent me to a job site and it was fascinating. So I decided then to focus my job hunt on construction companies and I started doing more bookkeeping and office management for small subcontractors. Then I started doing project accounting for general contractors. And then I saw a sign on a bus for a pre-apprenticeship program for women. And it just called me, I saw it and I was like, ‘that’s it, that’s how I can get on my tool, because I didn’t really know too much about the union or how women get on construction jobs at all. So I completed the pre-apprenticeship program, which led me to becoming a carpenter and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Epicenter: What has been the most challenging part of working in a male-dominated industry?
Castro: For me, personally and I think, for a lot of women, one of the most challenging parts is figuring out how to be taken seriously. You have to work twice as hard, right? So it can be challenging to kind of prove, ‘hey, I’m here, I have these skills. Don’t dismiss me automatically because of your perceived bias.’ You have to work harder, you have to get there earlier, you have to do more, I believe, to achieve the same success as a man.
Dennis: Being a female in a male dominated field hasn’t been easy, but at the same time, you grow a certain type of skin. Have I ever faced any harassment in the field? No. Has anybody ever come at me in a derogatory way? No. But you can sense that it can go that way. You also get a lot of the guys that always want to help. And then I have to explain to them, ‘if you keep helping me when I’m by myself, who’s gonna do it, I’m gonna have to figure it out, right?’
Epicenter: What are some of the misconceptions surrounding unions?
Castro: I think that to a certain extent that there’s a fair perception of what unions look like based upon what they used to look like, right. Men only, mob-run, Italian and Irish, that was the demographic. So I think there was this idea that it’s a certain kind of person, they always got the jobs, maybe they’re bullies. I don’t know if we have to do better marketing or branding so that we don’t look like the boogeyman, especially now that all these other places like Starbucks and Amazon are unionizing. People refer to us as “big labor,” which I really hate. Don’t call us big labor. We are not big oil or Big Pharma. We’re not like those evil people.
Dennis: I think that unions are misunderstood because they feel people may still think that it’s still, just to be frank, predominantly male, pale and stale. People think it’s still the good old boys club — and it’s not like that anymore. We have minorities that are coming in here every day. You’re starting to see more Black and Latinos than ever.
Epicenter: What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
Dennis: I can walk the city and say, ‘look, I helped build the city.’ You know, I can walk and say I was a part of a specific project. And it’s just never ending. The union is just never ending. I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me
Castro: If I’m limiting it to being in the union part, as opposed to non-union, the pay is great, the benefits are great. I’m working toward my pension. And as someone who started late in the game at 35 years old, it’s great to know I am gonna get a pension check, I’m saving up for my retirement, I just bought a house three years ago. Those are things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do on my own, so it gives me a lot of self worth. Then there is learning the trade, learning how to cut and measure and being able to do a lot of my own work. I love having a skill. If I need something I can make it or build it. And as a woman, just knowing I got all my tools and I know how to use every single one. That gives me a lot of confidence.