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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 age 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 up and say, We’ve got a job for you?”

Irene Lee, 42, says she is a fifth generation carpenter. She specializes in 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 on 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 women have to go through?”

“This is the names for you,” says journeyman carpenter Judy Niblett. “Bitch, Black bitch, and crackhead bitch. When you sit down and write them up, they 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 to 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 to the Greektown Casino.” Phiffer said she was incensed about the loan because she is part of a lawsuit against the Casino and Comerica Park developers, charging that skilled women workers were denied construction work on those sites.

Many other members at the meeting also wanted to know what was going on with the union’s finances, in the wake of a January raid on Council of Carpenters headquarters by the FBI.

Phiffer says Lee had earlier been pushed away from the mike after demanding 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. “If 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, president 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 participants 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, pulled muscles, neck strain, and hoarseness from the chokehold.

They have filed complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the National Labor Relations Board. The complaints also cite an incident of 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 she says approached her last spring for sexual favors in exchange for providing work.

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 one 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 meetings, but I heard it from both sides once again. There is nothing I can do, except 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 officer.]

[This article originally appeared in the Michigan Citizen.]

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