Black Women’s Equal Pay Day: A Conversation with Christine Tervalon-Garrett
August 23, 2016 is Black women’s equal pay day, which marks how far into 2016 Black women must work to make what white men made in 2015. To address the pay gap faced by women, especially those of color, we joined partners from across the country to develop the Equal Pay Today! Campaign. The campaign, now chaired by Equal Rights Advocates, is highly collaborative and strategic. We are working with tremendous leaders in six states (California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Washington, and Minnesota) and at the federal level to reform and enforce laws to close the many contributors to the gap. In California, we have partnered with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center and the California Women’s Law Center to close the pay gap, especially for women of color and low-wage women workers. (Click here to learn more about our 2016 Public Hearing on the Pay Gap for Women of Color.)
The pay gap is not just about numbers. It is about real women, including women who are over-represented in low-wage jobs. That is why tradeswoman advocate Christine Tervalon-Garrett, who is paving the way for others like her in higher-paid but male-dominated trades, is so inspiring.
Equal Rights Advocates spoke with Christine about her own path to economic security and the potential of the skilled trades to help close the wage gap.
Tell us a little about your journey into the trades. What has your trade meant to your economic security?
My journey into the trades and union life was like many others. I worked many jobs before I became a union painter in 2005. I was employed as a gas station operator, deli-worker, bookkeeper, taxi cab driver and many more. After a violent incident driving my taxi, I decided to stop driving and get into something a little more safe. I really didn’t know where to go after being in a cycle of low-wage employment, but I knew something had to change. I was 25 years old with an associates degree in Sociology and no prospects. I was encouraged to get into painting by a few friends I had helped with their projects. I knew there was only one way to go for benefits and a decent salary – union life. A lot of things changed for the better after I joined the union, including the economics of my life.
You talk about union membership as both an important tool for closing the gender wage gap, but also make clear that union membership is not a cure-all for discrimination against women. In what ways do we need to continue addressing gender discrimination in the trades in order to capitalize fully on the potential of unions to help close the wage gap?
Yes, it is true that unions do significantly close the huge gap between the wages of men and women, but there are still many ways that gender bias exists within the trades and within unions. When I think of the question of what are the things that help open doors for women, especially black women, I know the answer has to come in the form of creating a space of opportunity, exposure and community. It is hard for a lot of black women to envision doing trade work because they don’t see themselves represented on a job site. The more visible other black women are who are doing the work the better. Exposure is critical — having someone explain how to get into unions, what are the different types of construction opportunities that exist, and how to access these opportunities to lift themselves and their families into better financial circumstances. As far as being able to consistently keep the pressure up to close the gap, I think of retention. Retaining women in the trades is key. It’s one thing to get black women into the craft for a year or so, then they leave when they find the climate harsh and unwelcoming. That is why creating community around women in the trades is important. Having a space that women can check-in regularly to talk about the ups and downs of being a tradeswoman in a space that allows women to have a voice.
What can we do to help more black women in particular get into the higher-paying trades jobs?
Black women are unique. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today if someone didn’t recognize and appreciate that uniqueness in me. This will sound cliche, but we must mentor and reach out to black women who have potential. Invest in supporting the growth of black women — that may look like being an ally or advocate in the break room. We must use tools and resources to support those dreams.
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