News Column

Star Magazine Interview: Alise Martiny

Oct. 24, 2012

Cindy Hoedel, The Kansas City Star

Alise Martiny of Merriam is business manager for the Greater Kansas City Building and Trades Council. This conversation took place at Crossroads Coffeehouse.

QWhat is the Building and Trades Council?

AThe AFL-CIO is the umbrella organization over all of organized labor. Underneath that are different departments, and one is building trades. So I work with all the construction trades on a daily basis.

QHow did you end up with this big union job? It's not the kind of post people expect a woman to fill.

ANo, it's not. I'm the first female to hold that job in Kansas City and in Missouri. I've been in construction a long time.

QHow did you get into it?

AI was going to KU and I got up there and decided it wasn't for me. Came home and heard an ad on the radio trying to get more minorities and females into the construction industry. This was 1980, when President Carter was pushing for affirmative action.

QHow did you get trained?

AI did an apprenticeship program with the cement masons.

QHow much does it cost to get into an apprenticeship program like that?

ANothing. It's all paid for by private dollars from labor management. So it makes a lot more sense for some people than taking on huge debt for college -- it's become people's highest debt after home mortgages.

The programs are three to five years and when you start out you start out on a 50 percent scale, which is about $14 to $20 bucks an hour.

And you start right out getting health insurance and a pension, which not a lot of people get anymore.

QYou spend a lot of time speaking to young women about construction jobs. What is your message to them?

AThat there are great opportunities for women in construction. Our numbers for women are very low. Our goal for females in Kansas City, Missouri, is 2 percent, and we are meeting that, but just barely.

QWow. Two percent is the goal?

AYes, it's low. It's so sad.

QWhy do you think it's so low?

AIf you look at what it is across the country, it's 31/2 to 4 percent. That's low, and we are still lagging.

I think we haven't done a good job of letting women know that they can do this job. Construction is a great job for a woman, especially if she is trying to provide health insurance, a pension and a livable wage for her and her family.

QAre there any positive developments regarding women in construction?

AWe are finally breaking the glass ceiling. You see women project managers. You see women owners.

QIn all the years you've been in construction, have you seen men's attitudes toward women on the job site change?

AYou bet. Thirty-two years ago when I started it was so different. Younger kids weren't even doing construction, let alone females. So to see an 18-year-old female come in was just amazing.

But it's no longer what we used to call pale, male and stale on job sites. It's not Jimmy Hoffa.

QWhat is the state of organized labor overall?

AStrong and growing. We have 4,100 more union members now in Missouri than we had five years ago.

QWe are still in a tough recovery. What are you seeing on the ground in terms of construction jobs?

AConstruction is still hurting. When you talk about construction work, you have different divisions: utility work, commercial and heavy highway. Commercial took the biggest hit first and now heavy highway is taking a hit. You've seen the funding of MODOT go from $1.2 million to $600,000. Losing half their funding, you're not going to see near the number of roads and bridges you've seen in the past. Same thing with K-DOT.

Commercial is starting to come back up. We're very blessed with Honeywell and with Ford's new facility for the E-series van.

In the next two to three years you are going to see slow growth of 2 to 3 percent per year, and hopefully after that we'll get back to where we can bring in lots of new people who want great training, benefits and a liveable wage.

QWhat are the drawbacks?

AYou get up early. We don't start our jobs at 9 or 10. You are dealing with the cold. You are dealing with the heat.

QHow did you deal with the climate?

AI like summer. I think you can get used to it. Your body adapts every day.

You don't start off at 100-degree days. You start off in the spring when the flowers are blooming and it gradually builds to the 100-degree days. And even then, you get up early so it's not 100 degrees when you start work.

My first year, 1980, we had 15 days with highs between 107 and 115 degrees. I was working on the Adams Mark hotel. I thought, "Oh my gosh, what have I done?" Because concrete generates heat. And you go home and if you have a spiritual life, you say, "Lord, get me through another day."

QWhat about the cold?

AThe winter was always hard for me. Because you get up out of a warm bed, out of a warm car and the shock hits. It's really mind over matter then.

QDo women face any special challenges in the building trades?

AWe lose more women on job sites not because of the job but because the guy at home can't handle her working with all the men. In organized labor we are all out there just wanting to get the job done. But a lot of men have misperceptions. So it's really important that women have someone to go to, someone to call who can say, "Here's how I handled that."

QWhat about the physical toll?

AIt can take a toll on your body. But we're learning how to work smarter. A bag of Portland cement weighed 90 pounds. In the old days, I picked them up many a time. No woman or man should be picking up a 90-pound bag. Thirty years ago we didn't wear ear plugs.

Nowadays nobody expects anybody to do anything that isn't safe. In the last three years in Missouri, our rates for workman's compensation insurance have continued to fall, because we have the most skilled workers and the safest working conditions.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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