Cheryl Purnell was hauling lumber and hammering nails at a west-side work site last month when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a white-owned construction company in Colorado had been unconstitutionally denied a federal subcontract by affirmative action.

Conservative Republicans hailed the ruling as a step away from “reverse discrimination” and a step toward the eventual abolition of all governmental preference programs for women and minorities.

But as far as Purnell’s concerned the justices might as well have flown to Chicago and ripped the hammer from her hands. As she sees it, without affirmative action she and other would-be women carpenters have no chance of cracking construction trades long controlled by white men.

“We aren’t asking to take anyone’s job away–we only want a chance,” says Purnell. “We have to shatter the stereotype of what women can and can’t do. There’s just too much talent out there getting wasted if we don’t. If women aren’t part of the larger society you have a diminished society.”

The construction trades have been very slow to open their ranks to women. There were no more than a handful of women in the trades until a 1978 affirmative action directive by President Carter, according to a study by Chicago Women in Trades, a not- for-profit group. Now 2.1 percent of the workers on local construction sites are women, though that number rises to almost 7 percent on some federally funded projects like the new post office.

Chicago Women in Trades is attempting to increase that number by training more women for construction jobs. In fact, Purnell’s one of 20 women who recently graduated from a preapprentice training program offered by CWT. The course’s main instructor, Eileen Kreutz, a carpenter with her own contracting company, predicts this year’s graduates could pass the tests needed to advance into various union apprenticeship programs.

Without pressure from the government, however, unions and contractors will have no incentive to promote or hire women, no matter what their talents, Kreutz contends. “We know what we’re up against with discrimination in this business,” she says. “Without affirmative action we’ll go back to the bad old days.”

Even a talented carpenter like Kreutz probably would not be in the business without CETA, the old federal job-assistance program that paid her and other carpenters to rehab apartment buildings in Uptown, using crews of local unemployed residents. “We worked with a local group called Voice of the People,” Kreutz says. “We turned over entire units. We did six-flats–we’d gut them and redo them. This was all tenant-managed housing. We were creating housing and training people for good jobs.”

President Reagan ended that program in the early 1980s, and countless residents in Uptown and other low-income neighborhoods lost their chance to develop marketable skills. Kreutz went on to establish her own contracting concern; in 1989 she began teaching for Women in Trades.

“I know what it’s like to want to crack the trades,” says Kreutz. “Before I was a carpenter I was involved in social work, and it was clear to me that I was in a dead-end job. I always had an interest in the skilled trades. Even as a kid I liked to work with my hands. My family was in the sheet-metal trade. So I decided to make a switch. The women in my class are going through the same kinds of transitions I went through 20 years ago. They’re in jobs which don’t seem to have futures. These are bright women who know what it means to work hard.”

For 12 weeks Kreutz’s students attend two three-hour classes a week and an all-day on-site class on Saturday. The classes’ purpose is to prepare them for the preapprentice union exams. If they pass those exams they become apprentices and get sent to job sites where they can gain the experience needed for the highest-paying skilled positions.

“The course is rigorous,” says Kreutz. “We do an hour of aerobics and weight lifting–they have to be able to lift 70 pounds. But that’s not as hard as you think. It’s two kids and a bag of groceries. Most women can do it–they just don’t know that they can. Math is also part of the training. You have to be able to work with odd shapes, to figure out how they come together. We do electrical work and circuitry. We have them design and build cabinets. There’s also plumbing and pipe fitting. It’s the works.”

Students are asked to keep a journal. “It’s important to keep track of what you’re learning,” says Kreutz. “It’s important to know how to write a plan and follow it.”

At the end of the course they take a test similar to the apprentice exam. “I don’t know of any trainee who didn’t pass an apprenticeship exam,” says Kreutz. “Most skilled trades can make 40, 50, even 60 thousand a year. These are good jobs.”

One former student, Diane Kieres, is now Kreutz’s partner. A student who just graduated, Eileen McKenzie, plans on becoming an electrician, quite a change from her previous job as a cashier.

“My husband’s an electrician, and we decided it would be good to start our own business together,” McKenzie says. “I did drywall and welding and I learned to bend pipe–stuff I could never imagine doing. At first I didn’t think I’d like it. But I like working with my hands. I’m not afraid to get dirty.”

Purnell wants to become a cabinetmaker. “I think I got a talent and this is my do-or-die chance to either make something of it or go to my grave not knowing,” she says. “This program gave me the confidence to know that I can use my technical abilities. Women need more of that kind of confidence. We’d always been told that we’re not good in science or math or with our hands. The world doesn’t know what it’s missing by not having women contribute in this way.”

Both McKenzie and Purnell worry that changes in affirmative action will torpedo their future careers. “I don’t want to hear about men complaining about not getting all the breaks,” says McKenzie. “It’s been a man’s world for a long time–women need a break too. A lot of these old guys you see complaining are just worried ’cause they know with affirmative action they can’t keep everything for themselves.”

Return of the CTA pass

When James Bottoms launched his quixotic one-man crusade to bring back the monthly transit pass, CTA officials all but laughed in his face.

The pass is dead, they sneered, killed by a vote of the CTA board last December and for good reason: studies showed it cost more than it’s worth. Who is this guy Bottoms, some salesman of motivational books and tapes out of Evanston, to question the expertise of transit experts? Doesn’t he know you can’t bring back the dead? (Neighborhood News, February 3).

Well, Bottoms didn’t listen. He braved cold and snow and stood outside subway stations and bus stops gathering signatures on petitions of protest. He joined forces with a group called Citizens Taking Action, and they took their cause to the City Council and Springfield. “It was never personal against the CTA,” says Bottoms. “I love the CTA; I’ve been using it all my life. But they were removed from their riders. They didn’t realize that by getting rid of those passes they were hurting the people who ride them the most.”

Well, guess what? Bottoms was right. After the pass was abolished, ridership and revenues decreased. And on June 20 the CTA board swallowed hard and did what was said could never be done: they brought the pass back to life.

Oh, they’re not about to give Bottoms any credit. They won’t acknowledge a correlation between declining ridership and abolition of the passes, and they say they were unmoved by the protests. The real reason for bringing back the passes, they say, is that it’s taking longer than expected to install a high-tech fare-collection system that will make passes, transfers, and tokens obsolete.

“There was a glitch along the way and we won’t be able to install the fare boxes until 1996,” says Jeff Stern, a spokesman for the CTA. “We didn’t think it was fair to leave the customers without any kind of card for so long.”

Stern also notes that the system might be better served if the protesters targeted state and federal politicians whose budget cuts are decimating public transportation. And here he has a point, although Bottoms wishes the CTA were more humble. “They should just admit that they were wrong and realize it was a mistake to get rid of those passes, which the public loves,” Bottoms says.

He’s not even sure he’ll buy the pass, now that it’s back. For one thing, the CTA raised the price from $78 to $88. For another, he has discovered other transportation options. “I’ve been riding my bike a lot,” he says. “I enjoy the scenery; I’m getting exercise. One of the guys I talked to from the CTA told me, “You’ll be back.’ But I got so mad when they did away with the passes I vowed not to use the CTA. And now I don’t know if I need the CTA anymore. I told them they’d lose riders if they got rid of the pass, but they wouldn’t listen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.