Changing with the times: Carpenters union reaching out to women, minorities in effort to diversify traditional workforce

Changing with the times: Carpenters union reaching out to women, minorities in effort to diversify traditional workforce

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By Brett Johnson

In a lot of ways, the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters is a changed organization, after growing to 40,000 members across New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland and parts of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

 

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John Ballantyne, a 35-year member who guides the union today in the executive secretary-treasurer role, said the organization now has more than $200 million in assets.

“But when you add in pensions, annuity, health and welfare, training programs collectively throughout all of our fronts, we’re at $7.5 billion in assets — larger than many organizations,” he said. “We’re between Hershey’s Chocolate and Foot Locker when you look at it that way.”

But, even as a new union, it’s still confronting old issues.

Prime among them is a long-running effort to bring more women into to fold. There’s a renewed awareness of the fact that women haven’t had the same support system as men in industries that have largely been male-dominated, a problem that the union has been ramping up efforts to correct.

Ballantyne has a personal connection to this, given that his wife has worked as an electrician in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for the past three decades.

“I look at her and other women coming into the union in the ’80s as pioneers in the industry,” he said. “They were often on a job site with hundreds of workers, all men.

“When she came in, she was one of the first women in the electrical union and I watched how she grew in a career with a great union behind her with members who felt like brothers. We want our sisters to have the same positive experience she did.”

That’s why the union has its Sisters in the Brotherhood program, which involves community outreach as well as support for female members with assistance that moves the members into journeyman status and beyond.

Sisters in Brotherhood was piloted here in New Jersey in just a few locations, and has over the years expanded throughout the state. As part of its launch, the union established a goal of having a presence of at least 10 percent of women in its training centers within a five-year period — something that’s close to being achieved.

Although there is still progress to be made, Ballantyne said such initiatives have already resulted in the success of bringing women to job sites today where there were once none.

“We have this emphasis on bringing women in, but we also recognize that we are one craft with many faces,” he said. “We need to do a better job of engaging people in major communities such as Jersey City, Newark and Camden. Local unions should make up local people, and we want to mirror the demographics of the areas we’re in.”

To that end, the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters is establishing a committee to guide a program that encourages increased minority participation in the organization.

It’s addressing another of those old issues that have had an effect on the perception of unions — and have gotten in the way of opportunities over the years.

“Throughout my career working with elected officials in some major cities throughout the Northeast, you would have them say to you, we’d like to engage in project labor agreements with you, but we don’t recognize that you represent the community members,” Ballantyne said. “To a point, they were right.”

Like the union’s effort to help women success in their trade, the initiative is about bringing people in and mentoring through the union’s process, including their initial apprenticeship, to remove barriers to entry.

Ballantyne views his organization’s diversity programs as unique — but entirely necessary to a modern labor union.

“I don’t think there’s another organization in the construction industry that has such a comprehensive program of this sort,” Ballantyne said. “But it’s something that’s needed.”

 

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