Association for Union Democracy

Women still struggling for equal opportunities in Plumbers Union

AUD has been following Joyce Collier’s story for many years now. Collier, who qualified as a certified plumber in 1999 after completing a five-year apprenticeship program and is a member of UA local 1 in New York City, has filed a number of cases over the years alleging gender-based discrimination in the local’s hiring system and harassment on the job. Collier states that she was frequently passed over for work she was qualified for, sometimes ending up in positions in which she cleaned up after equally qualified men. When she was hired, she endured harassment on the job; male colleagues would grope her and undress in her presence in shared changing rooms despite her requests that they simply have the respect to give her a heads up before changing.

In 2005, she was working with Legal Momentum’s now-defunct Women Rebuild project and in 2007 filed a lawsuit against Plumbers Local 1 alleging that both race- and gender-based discrimination had prevented her from getting the same number of work hours as her white male colleagues. Without enough hours, Collier – and other female plumbers – cannot become vested, giving them access to better jobs and pension contributions. Collier provided AUD with a list of female Local 1 members over a 15-year period listing their rank and hours worked. Of the initial approximately 60 women (out of 5000 members total) half disappeared from the list by the 15 year mark. Many lost their books when they fell behind on dues, which they could not keep up with because they were not receiving enough hours of work.

In the 2007 case, the Local moved for a summary judgment, arguing that “no genuine issue exist[ed],” and the court agreed, issuing a summary judgment in favor of the defendant. In the court’s statement, the judge wrote that Collier’s testimony was either unsubstantiated or hearsay, both insufficient to bring the case to trial.

Collier has also brought cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which handles cases of discrimination based on protected status, including gender and race, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which, among other responsibilities, handles cases of unfair labor practices. Both entities sided with the union. The NLRB even stated that the union has no obligation to act in a nondiscriminatory manner in its hiring hall practices because it operates a non-exclusive referral service.

But Collier has persisted in trying to get what she sees as a fair shake for female plumbers. At the center of Collier’s objection to the local’s hiring hall system is a 2005 settlement agreement with the office of the New York State Attorney General and United States Department of Labor which states that the local should “make every effort” to implement a fair hiring system. Unfortunately, the wording of the agreement gives the local an easy out: how is “every effort” defined? Suffice to say, there is no hiring system in place that assures that women and minorities will not face discrimination and the agreement has now expired. Joyce Collier and her supporters say that no effort was ever made to implement one.

While Local 1 officially has an equal opportunity policy, Collier’s experience, as well as that of other female plumbers, seems to indicate that it is either unenforced or ineffective. One difficulty, as indicated by the numbers Collier presented, is with retention. Women are interested in skilled trades, but the culture is difficult to endure and doesn’t appear to be likely to change any time soon.

Collier, however, has not given up hope. She is currently has an Article 78 complaint against the Attorney General, arguing that the AG’s office has failed to enforce the hiring hall portion of the 2005 settlement agreement and is now claiming that it was only ever concerned with the simultaneous racketeering charges.

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