May 2015

Women Find Success in Ironwork

Women make up just 2.6 percent of construction workers, but many are becoming superstars in their fields.

Several women from Locals 75 (Phoenix), 229 (San Diego) and 378 (Oakland, Calif.) recently shared some stories about how they became interested in becoming ironworkers.

A Lifelong Dream

Richelle Jeff began her career working retail, but she really always wanted to be like her dad.

“I used to follow my dad, who has been a welder for more than 38 years, and say I was going to be like him,” says Jeff. But, “I had to do work at department stores to take care of my kids.”

Then she learned about her opportunity to get into the trade from a Maricopa Community College welding class. It was everything she was looking for in one package: college credits, fair pay, health benefits and, most importantly, challenging work. 

“What I do as a rodbuster is extreme,” says Jeff, who worked on the Interstate 10/Loop 303 traffic interchange in Phoenix. “It has made me realize that I am capable of doing a lot more than I think I can do.” 

She adds: “One of my favorite parts is driving through town and seeing that I’m literally helping build Phoenix.” 

She also loves the comradery that comes with being part of the union. 

“Being female and a minority—I’m Native American—I used to get talked to pretty inappropriately when I was working non-union,” says Jeff. “Now I feel safe because my union brothers will always have my back.”

Jeff knows that she will one day become an instructor at Local 75, and she’s working on getting her certifications to make that dream a reality. 

Free at Last

Esther Satele came to California by way of Hawaii from American Samoa. She says that it may be her Polynesian culture that makes her competitive and hardheaded.

Satele doesn’t have family members who are ironworkers, nor does she know anyone in it.

She got into the trade as a dare. 

“I won’t ever forget that day when my husband’s friend said that I wouldn’t last a day in the field. It made me want to prove him wrong,” Satele says.

And she did that, plus a whole lot more. 

She started tying rebar when she turned out from the apprenticeship in 1999. That lasted six years.

“I would go home with raw shoulders from carrying the rebar, but somehow I managed to come back every single day,” says Satele, who went from rodbusting to “bolting up” or putting together the skeleton ironwork on buildings. 

At 49 years old, Satele is getting ready to celebrate 18 years with Iron Workers Local 378 in July of 2015. 

“I enjoy climbing up in the sky. I feel free when I’m up in the air,” says Satele. 

Satele says she loves her job because of the good wages and health insurance, which are crucial for supporting her five children.

“I also think the fact that my union brothers and sisters will always be there for me is priceless,” says Satele. 

Creating Art

Blue Coble, a fourth-year apprentice at Local 75, works as an ironworker doing rebar and structural work. She started in construction after a 10-year career in graphic design, creating magazine ads, doing web coding and designing T-shirts. 
“It’s difficult going from being art-focused at a desk to putting a tool belt on, going outside and building amazing things,” says Coble. 

But Coble also says there are similarities between the two.

“Ironworking (like design) is so fluid, and it’s artistic in its own way that people can find a task, master it and make it into something tangible that’s going to be there for years and years to come.” 

She says she became an ironworker because she wants to do all that comes with the position.

“I want to weld, do reinforcing on bridges, put glass on skyscrapers, ironwork has a lot of possibilities,” says Coble. 

From the Ranch to the Iron

Maria Gradilla grew up helping her father in Jalisco, Mexico. She was a pro when it came to seeding, cutting and being the lead in the daily operations of the ranch. 

“I was young and had a blast using the heavy machinery, and just being one of the men in the field,” says Gradilla. 

Still, Gradilla thought of becoming a nurse in her hometown, but then she emigrated to the U.S. when she was 18. Working with her hands made the most sense. 

“I honestly just simply wanted a job in construction.” 

Then one day she drops off friends to fill out an apprenticeship application. Because she was already at the Local 229 hall, she decided to 
do the same. She later got a call saying she’d been accepted. 

“I’m so grateful to be working union. The work helps me support my children not only financially, but with the basic services we need to survive such as health insurance and for me—a retirement plan,” says Gradilla. 

Gradilla has worked at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Diego, hanging iron and welding, as well as measuring tubes to help put up solar panels in Imperial Valley, California.

“The best part is proving that I can do everything men can do and sometimes even better,” says Gradilla. 

Stepping Out of the Box

Johanna Watson, a 33-year-old single mother, says that as a Navajo woman she was raised to become a homemaker.

She says she decided to go a different route and pursue a liberal arts degree at Northern Arizona University while working for the U.S. Postal Service full time. 

She did that for six years while taking care of her four kids. 

Watson then moved to Mesa and started with the union in 2006. 

“I’m real competitive, so during my apprentice years I practiced until I was ready for all the tests,” says Watson. 

Watson now works as a production welder, welding materials together with Local 75. 

“Being an ironworker has allowed me to show to myself and my kids that, as a woman, I’m capable of being in this industry for myself and to support my family,” says Watson. “Because of the learning opportunities and experience with the union, I’ve been able to get closer to my goal of owning a business so that I can hire local union labor.”

Fascinated by Turning Nothing into Something

Laura Lizarraga, a first-year apprentice with Local 229, never worked in construction, but she just needed a job.

Friends told her about the Local 229 apprenticeship, so she applied and started out as a helper. 

“I’ve helped with solar work and building the Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Diego,” says Lizarraga. “It’s been amazing seeing nothing at the project site and being part of a team that helps create these beautiful structures in a safe, efficient way.”

She says the hardest part is not the work itself, but the balance of work and home life.

“When I was working at the hospital, I’d put in almost 60 hours a week, then every three months I’d go to class for one week, plus give my two-year old the attention she deserves. It’s tough,” Lizarraga says. 

But she likes the challenge and everything that comes with being an ironworker. 

“I’m able to support my family, get dental, medical and vision insurance, plus have a retirement plan, it’s a blessing,” says Lizarraga.

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Story submitted by Brenda Yanez/Torres Consulting and Law Group