By Ana Taveras, NEW Graduate
Did you know that less than 2 percent of plumbers are women? Plumbers earn more than $60,000 annually. More than 85 percent of home health aides are women. Home health aides earn less than $22,000 annually. This salary is below the poverty level for a single mother with three children.
Picture, if you will, a 23-year-old woman, a single mother of a 1-year-old daughter, struggling to make it. Living in the Bronx, surviving thanks to subsidized housing, public assistance, and the support of her family... afraid the lights were going to be cut off because she could not afford to pay the entire bill, a person desperately looking for a career but lacking the knowledge and guidance to find her own path.
That was me in 1995, when I first heard about Nontraditional Employment for Women.
I have always loved construction. I can remember stopping at jobsites on city streets looking at the workers who of course were always men -- working with jackhammers, climbing scaffolding, and building walls.
I realized then that I needed to get a job with a real future, a job that would not only pay a livable wage, but also would have medical benefits for my daughter. I realized I needed a career.
I didn't know exactly where NEW would take me, but I had faith in the organization, the people who worked there and the other students. As I look at it now, I made a good choice.
I went through an intensive training program with NEW, the rules were firm but fair, the expectations were great, but so were the opportunities for those willing to work for it, and I was more than willing to put in the work.
Graduating from NEW was a proud moment but I knew it wouldn't mean much, if I didn't find a job. When I graduated, I didn't know what trade I wanted to joined, I just wanted to work.
My first job after NEW was as a flagger on a road project on Columbus Avenue. One worker suggested I check out Laborers Local 79. Like when I registered for NEW, I wasn't exactly sure where the Laborers would take me, but I had faith and the desire to work.
Again, I had made the right decision.
My first job as a laborer was doing demo in Manhattan. I basically watched what the other workers were doing and quickly followed their lead.
The beginning was difficult, not because I couldn't do the job, but because of the response I got from some of the workers and some of the foremen. But once they saw me working and what I was capable of doing, their attitudes completely changed. Being a woman in a male-dominated field sometimes means you need to work extra hard to be accepted and respected. And that's exactly what I did.
For the past 13 years I have been working as a Union Organizer for LEROF -- Laborers Eastern Region Organizing Fund -- beating the streets, meeting with workers, promoting the ideal that workers should be treated with respect and dignity, and paid fairly for their labor.
The union brought me into the middle class. I know that if we want to preserve the middle class in America, workers need to make livable wages and benefits. This is why it is my passion to help other workers have a shot at reaching the middle class, the American dream. Now I'm an Organizing Coordinator, Deputy Supervisor for a local, and Deputy Trustee of another local.
What I have learned from this is that the greatest gifts I have received were not only opportunities to grow once I was fully prepared for advancement, but the chance to succeed or fail on my own all while learning along the way.
Seventeen years after starting with NEW, I am now creating opportunities for others just as they have been created for me.
My life today is hectic to say the least: I'm at work by 5:15 a.m. -- I'm dispatching workers out, taking calls from contractors, sending organizers to half the state of New Jersey. It seems like the work never stops, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
I love my job!
Before I was 23 and a single mom, I was 22, pregnant, and living at the 3rd Street Women's Shelter -- a homeless shelter. Today I own my house, I can afford to provide for my daughters, and I don't have to worry about my lights or phone being cut off.
NEW unlocked the door, the laborers opened it a little, and I pushed through.
Help NEW Fund the Future for more women -- join our team at http://www.crowdrise.com/new-jr.