An advocate for construction and women in the field

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AUTHOR: Laurie Cowin

PUBLISHED: March 5, 2018

Tamara Rivera

Council representative, NYC District Council of Carpenters

Experience: As the first woman council representative in her 20,000-member union, Rivera, a 24-year industry veteran, also is involved with the women’s council, Sisters in the Brotherhood.

Tamara Rivera has a lot to be proud of in her 24-year career as a carpenter. She worked her way from an apprentice to a salaried council representative with the New York City District Council of Carpenters – the first woman hired in such a position. She’s regarded as a leader in the council’s women’s committee and receives and gives great respect from and to her colleagues.

But she’s quick to tell you that her career accomplishments aren’t about her: They’re about advancing the industry and the extraordinarily individuals that comprise it — women in particular.

In 1994, a friend told Rivera about a free New York City program called Non-Traditional Employment for Women. Because she had a job, she let her friend trailblaze. After seeing her journey, Rivera decided to follow suit, took the test, went through the program and became a carpenter.

Upon program completion, she joined the union, completed the four-year apprenticeship program, and then advanced to journeyperson before becoming a shop steward. Although Rivera no longer works with tools, she has served as a council representative for the past nine years.


Lobbying efforts pay off

Rivera’s role in the 20,000-plus-member union is multi-faceted and one that she regards with the utmost respect. As part of the Area Standard Department, she visits nonunion construction sites throughout the five boroughs, and talks to the key players and contractors about the importance of fair wages and benefits. She also talks to community boards and local elected officials.

In addition, Rivera discusses the value of “good jobs” with committee boards and legislators. “Good jobs mean careers and careers mean that even blue collar workers should be able to retire with some sort of annuity or 401(k),” she said.

Women experience construction very differently on the non-union versus the union side, Rivera said. “You see very few women in that side, and if you do see them they’re holding a stop or slow sign or flagging. You don’t really see them as electricians, plumbers or carpenters,” she said. Compare that to the New York City carpenters union, which has about 800 to 900 women.

Likewise, other specialized trade unions, like ones for plumbers and electricians, have a host of women members. “We have careers, which is important,” Rivera said.

As part of her lobbying and awareness efforts, Rivera frequently travels to Albany, New York’s capital, to discuss construction-related issues, including prevailing wages and benefits. These trips aren’t just about advocating for union employees, either. They’re about highlighting the industry as a whole.

She tells legislators she doubts non-union workers will be visiting Albany to promote better wages or benefits because they don’t have representation. “Those workers deserve that opportunity for fair wages and benefits, too,” she said. “To me, it’s about being paid fairly with benefits, non-union or not.”

In mid-February, Rivera spent a day in Albany discussing public works and the prevailing wage. “It’s so gray,” she said. “There is no clear definition of what makes a particular project prevailing rate and what doesn’t.” She added the union is pushing for legislators to sign a bill that will be transparent and make it easier to say, “This will be a prevailing wage project because of this definition.”

Consistency is key, and she’ll be visiting Albany again in a couple months. She also participates in specific events, including a Hispanic lobby day. “That’s where you do all your negotiating and try to reiterate why it’s important for these types of careers. It absolutely does work, but some things just take more time than others.”

Women, minorities growing in ranks

Rivera also is active in Sisters in the Brotherhood, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. “If there’s a carpenter’s local somewhere, there’s a good chance there’s a Sisters in the Brotherhood or women’s committee as well,” she said.

Sisters in the Brotherhood has a facility in Las Vegas where all training occurs, and where an annual conference with workshops and caucuses is hosted. “It’s uplifting and creates morale to keep us going and strong,” she said. “It’s easy to get lost in this industry because it’s majority men.”

Rivera noticed a sharp decrease in women during the Great Recession, which she attributed to many of them being mothers and single parents who had to seek employment elsewhere to provide stability for their families. As the economy has stabilized, women are joining the ranks once more.

In New York City, Rivera, who is Hispanic, said the minorities are becoming the majority. “We’re coming from all walks of life; we don’t discriminate,” she said. “When someone tells me construction isn’t diverse, I have to beg to differ on that. I can’t speak for other areas of the country, but as far as in New York City, it’s very diverse and bilingual.”


Making construction a career

“Construction isn’t easy. It’s not for everybody,” cautioned Rivera, who has had several orthopedic surgeries from wear-and-tear injuries. “This is a wear-and-tear business. People at an older age are walking differently; you can’t help it.”

Even so, she loves her chosen profession and encourages women to consider making a career of construction. Programs such as Non-Traditional Employment for Women and Oregon Tradeswomen cater specifically to females. But, prior training isn’t necessary to walk in the door. Rivera sees plenty of women come in off the street to learn the trade.

“Not only do we want more women coming in,” she said, “we want more women in leadership. Everything must be done in baby steps, though. Women need to want it. It’s all about building relationships with leaders.”

Finding the right time to start talking to students about construction as a profession is key. “If the outreach for recruitment is at a high school level, it’s too late,” she said, because by that age preconceived gender notions are in place. “Outreach needs to be done at a much younger age. [Show] kids that men can be nurses, women can be construction workers. We have a lot to work with still.”


Career advancement advice

For women looking to enter construction or advance their careers, Rivera said have an open mind and be a team leader. “You can’t be too rigid. As a woman we are a minority in construction. It’s how you play the course. You have to be flexible. That doesn’t mean kiss somebody’s derriere. You have to show you’re competent because we’re being judged the minute they see you. Take it seriously because it’s a great career.

“It’s great money and great benefits, but you have to show your worth,” she continued. “Be the best you can be from day one. Once you put your best foot forward you have to leave it there because the minute you pull it back, everything can just fall — and we need to elevate each other.”

Another key element of success? Find mentors. “If you see somebody in a place you would like to see yourself, they already have the formula for how to get there,” she said. “Get close by them, listen carefully and you can go far.”

This article is part of our five-part series about women leaders in construction for Women in Construction week 2018. Read the others here.