Cement mason, hockey coach, fitness competitor, single mom – those are all roles Kate Zelko has in her life. Sometimes all in the same day. When you consider she often commutes from her home in Sauk Rapids to jobs in the Metro area, one wonders how she does it in a 24 hour day.
A kinesiology major at Augsburg University, after college she decided she wanted to work outside and do something physical. She actually started in the trade by answering an ad on Craig’s List for a non-union company. “I had a son and needed to make money,” she said. While working non-union on a Ryan Companies job, she was approached about joining the union. She thought the pay and benefits were hard to beat.
Being a woman in a male dominated industry didn’t intimidate her. Rather it challenged her. “I challenged myself to hang with the boys,” she explained. “In the union the men have treated me absolutely great. They are just like my brothers. When I worked non-union, it wasn’t so hot.”
Brian Farmer, Apprenticeship Coordinator at Cement Masons Local 633, recognized her commitment to the trade and hired her as a teacher at the cement masons training center. He needed someone to represent the female side of the industry, someone who could be a guide to the ever-increasing role of women in the industry. Added Zelko, “It’s been exciting working with apprentices, particularly in the role of a female mentor. For single moms like me or just women going it alone, through me I hope they realize it’s not just a man’s job. They can do it too.”
When Saint Paul Building Trades Construction Council Executive Secretary Don Mullin was standing out on the street motioning cars to come into the IBEW 110 food give away, a woman pulled up to ask him, “Are you really giving away free food?” When Mullin answered in the affirmative, she thanked him and told him her prayers had just been answered on her drive home. “I didn’t know how I was going to feed my family tonight.”
This past winter members of the Minnesota Building Trades put their feet and backs into helping distribute food to struggling people in their communities as part of Round 5 of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, a nationwide Coronavirus Food Assistance Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“The need is great all over,” said Saint Paul Labor Studies and Resource Center’s Erica Dalager-Reed. “You have one in six people in Minnesota living with food insecurities. The need was there before COVID. The need is even greater now.”
The St. Paul Regional Labor Federation under the Labor Studies and Resource Center became a broker of food for the state of Minnesota. Through this arrangement with the USDA, the unions received food deliveries and they proved particularly qualified to distribute it. While food shelves consist mostly of non-perishable pantry items, these food stuffs contain perishable foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and meat and dairy products. Food trucks arrived on site carrying 40,000 lbs. of food separated into 23 palettes with 70 boxes on each palette. The trade unions provided the equipment to move the food, the manpower required for the heavy lifting, and the space to house the food for pick up. Precautions had to be taken for COVID, so contactless pick ups were done.
Both current and retired union members from across the building trades participated in 22 events just in March alone. The program expires early this spring; there’s hope Congress will extend it again.
Barry Davies, financial secretary/treasurer of Iron Workers Local 512, said, “Helping out was a natural for us. We feel very fortunate because we have worked all year. It’s a chance for us to give back to the community.”
When it was announced the Trades Women Build Nations Conference was coming to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis Building Trades Director of Marketing & Public Relations Jenny Winklaaar suggested one speaker she thought they should get — the only octogenarian in the United States so renown she has her own hip-hop nickname, the Notorious RBG, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
After submitting a formal request through a national association of lawyers (which went nowhere), Winklaar did her own research and called the United States Supreme Court. She selected the “Clerk of Court” option from the menu. The phone was accidentally answered by someone trying to dial out who hadn’t listened for the dial tone first. Winklaar said, “Hello.” A voice on the other end answered her back: “Hello… Who is this?” Winklaar introduced herself and told The Voice on the other end of the phone she wondered how one could request a Supreme Court justice to speak at an event. “… What?!” The Voice replied.
Winklaar explained a women’s conference was coming to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and they’d like Justice Ginsburg to speak at the event. The Voice put her on hold, but returned two minutes later with another person conferenced into the call. That led to another round on hold with yet a third person joining the conference call who said, “I’d like you to say your name; I’d like you to spell your name, and I’d like to give me the address from which you’re calling.” About that time Winklaar wondered if the FBI wasn’t on their way to detain her.
Eventually she was put through to the assistant to Justice Ginsburg who listened to her request and invited her to submit it via a special email address. Within 48 hours after sending the email, she got a personal response from RBG. With the Supreme Court starting their session, she wrote, she wouldn’t be able to attend in person. In lieu of that, she offered to do a special video address for the opening of the conference.
Looking back, Winklaar thought the women at the event “were really encouraged that RBG took time out of her schedule to encourage them.”
Vicki O’Leary, Chairwoman of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) Tradeswomen’s Committee, was standing in the back of the room waiting to be introduced as the next speaker when Ginburg’s video played for the crowd. “The young apprentices had tears in their eyes,” O’Leary recalls. “It was incredible to see how young women were made to feel like they had that sort of support.”