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Creating a Safe Space for Female Members on a LIUNA Megaproject

Ford Motor Company’s $5.6 billion manufacturing facility in Tennessee – also referred to as BlueOval City – is one of the biggest and most complex projects currently under construction in the U.S. Made possible by the Biden-Harris administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the project is truly massive in scale at 4,100 hundred acres, with more than 6,000 workers on site. 

The electric vehicles that will eventually roll off the assembly line at BlueOval aren’t the only innovation happening on this project, however. LIUNA leaders in the Ohio Valley and Southern States Region have had to reimagine how to recruit and quickly train hundreds of new members, many of them from the historically disadvantaged rural community of Stanton, Tennessee where the site is located.

Giving Female Members a Voice on Site

Part of the challenge of overseeing such a massive project is making sure that the health and safety of everyone on site is respected and that everyone has a voice, including LIUNA’s female members.

April Thomas, the Executive Director at the Southeast Laborers’ Training Fund, and Will Cardenas with the Southeast Laborers’ District Council, have been working to make that happen.

“Our Sisters go through layers of issues that the men don’t even need to think about,” said Cardenas. “Even before joining the trades or stepping on our site, a lot of women get used to tolerating certain kinds of behavior. We want everyone to know that isn’t acceptable here.”

LHSFNA Management
Co-Chairman
David F. Rampone

Following an incident on site, Cardenas worked with the general contractor to organize a site-wide safety stand down to make it clear this behavior would not be tolerated. That initial meeting led to more actions to give women a voice on site and make sure they felt safe, including starting an anonymous reporting hotline. Female members were also given LIUNA-branded hand-held sounder alarms, because on a site that’s a mile long and a quarter mile wide, it can be easy to get lost or feel isolated.

“We commend all the LIUNA affiliates and signatory contractors working together to make members feel safe and respected on site,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman David F. Rampone. “A sense of safety and belonging is foundational to creating a productive worksite and strong safety culture.”

Launching a Women’s Committee on Site

Next, Cardenas and Thomas set out to form a Women’s Committee at BlueOval. All female members across the site, regardless of trade, were invited to join.

“LIUNA has more female members at BlueOval than any other trade, but the goal was to bring women together from across the project,” said Cardenas. “We didn’t want to make assumptions about what our female laborers needed. We wanted to hear it from them.”

This initial meeting led to more issues being flagged, many related to bathrooms and sanitation. Cleaner bathrooms, separate bathrooms with coded locks and trash cans to dispose of feminine products were all put in place. This meeting of female tradeswomen also led to bathroom walls being scrubbed of crude or suggestive messaging.

In addition to sanitation, female tradeswomen noted the need for better fitting personal protective equipment, including smaller gloves, different size options for hard earplugs and respirators in a variety of fits.

“We created a safe space for this meeting by letting the women have the room and talk amongst themselves,” said Thomas. “It was also beneficial to have an outside speaker come in and connect with our female tradeswomen to encourage them to open up. We were very intentional about creating an environment where they would be comfortable.”

Creating Leadership Pathways for Female Tradeswomen

Setting up a Women’s Committee at your jobsite or Local Union can help create a sense of belonging that can be a big factor in recruiting and keeping the next generation of Laborers.

It can also create pathways to leadership for female LIUNA members. At BlueOval, Cardenas noted that at the start of the project, all the foremen across more than 40 contractors were male. That’s since changed, with one example being Tiana Lewis, a LIUNA member who started as a general laborer and is now foreperson on site.

“This committee is about giving our lady Laborers a way to communicate with each other and building that camaraderie,” said Cardenas. “It’s also about giving these women pathways to leadership on the site and in our union.”

Going forward, the goal is for the Women’s Committee to meet regularly, continue communicating needs to management and identify leadership training opportunities such as steward or foreperson training.

On the heels of the last Tradeswomen Build Nations conference, which attracted over 4,000 tradeswomen from across the country, there’s plenty of excitement about bringing more women into the trades. At BlueOval City, LIUNA leaders and LIUNA Sisters are making that a reality.

[Nick Fox]

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