WOMEN CARPENTERS FIGHT RACISM,
SEXISM ON JOB, IN UNION
by Diane Bukowski
Anjenetta Phiffer struck out on her own at the age of 12, after the deaths
of both parents. To make a good life for herself and the son she had at
15, she spent five years in carpenters’ apprenticeship school and the next
16 years working her trade on construction sites.
Now 37, she says, “I’d rather work at Burger King. I’d probably make more
money. I feel they’re all to blame-the contractors, the union, and
especially the city. In the newspaper, you see them cutting the ribbon and
digging up the new construction sites. What about me, did anybody call me
and say, We’ve got a job for you?”
Irene Lee, 42, says she is a fifth generation carpenter. She specializes
blueprints and lay-outs and is also a certified welder. “I’m from the
South,” Lee says, “but I never dealt with such racism as I’ve dealt with
the job and in that union” (the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters).
“And the gender thing is unbelievable. How many years have to go by before
the sisters are even recognized in the brotherhood? How much abuse do
have to go through?”
“This is the names for you,” says journeyman carpenter Judy Niblett.
Black bitch, and crackhead bitch. When you sit down and write them up,
smirk and laugh like it’s a joke. The union’s response is basically
nothing.” She says she was told by the union’s only female business agent
accept the name-calling, because the business agent herself is regularly
called such names.
The women say they have faced such abuse from foremen, co-workers, and
business agents for years. At the February 14 meeting of Carpenters Local
687, Phiffer says, she finally had enough.
“I went to the mike and asked about the $35 million that the union loaned
the Greektown Casino.” Phiffer said she was incensed about the loan
she is part of a lawsuit against the Casino and Comerica Park developers,
charging that skilled women workers were denied construction work on those
Many other members at the meeting also wanted to know what was going on
the union’s finances, in the wake of a January raid on Council of
headquarters by the FBI.
Phiffer says Lee had earlier been pushed away from the mike after
an open accounting of finances. She says a white male member remarked, “I
don’t know what’s wrong with these women, they must not have got anything
for Valentine’s Day.” She says other white men began shouting, “Shut up,
bitch, sit down.”
“I told the man behind me to shut up,” says Phiffer, “and he called me a
bitch. I asked him twice, ‘Are you sure you’re calling me a bitch?’ and he
did it again. So I picked up a chair and hit him.”
Lee says four white men then jumped on Phiffer. When she ran forward to
defend her, says Lee, she was herself jumped by several other white men.
I had not jumped in, I believe with all my heart and soul that they would
have killed her,” says Lee.
Phiffer says one of the white men who attacked her was Mike Davis,
of Local 687, who got her in a chokehold. She says Davis then ejected Lee
and herself from the meeting, taking no action against the male
in the fight.
“Nobody said `we can’t have that in the meeting,'” says Mary Fortinberry,
another Black carpenter who was present. “To me it was all over. If you
didn’t see a problem with someone calling me a bitch, then you shouldn’t
have a problem with me hitting him.”
Both women went to the hospital after the meeting, suffering bruises,
muscles, neck strain, and hoarseness from the chokehold.
They have filed complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights
the National Labor Relations Board. The complaints also cite an incident
name-calling at the September 13 meeting, when male members became enraged
because the women would not remove their hats.
Phiffer filed a second complaint against Rod Crawford, a business agent
says approached her last spring for sexual favors in exchange for
A criminal complaint against the women has been filed by unidentified
parties and is under investigation, according to police. Internal union
charges seeking to expel Phiffer and Lee have been filed as well.
Asked about the women’s allegations of longstanding racist and sexist
mistreatment, Local 687 President Mike Davis said, “I have investigated
incident, and the language was on both sides, from the steward and all
people involved. I do not tolerate that type of language at union
but I heard it from both sides once again. There is nothing I can do,
call them out of order.”
Asked if he did call the men out of order at the meeting, Davis did not
respond. Asked if he himself participated in the physical attack, Davis
said, “Good-bye,” and hung up.
[Diane Bukowski is a retired city of Detroit employee and former AFSCME
[This article originally appeared in the Michigan Citizen.]