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 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.”
When work on the I-35W Downtown to Crosstown project resumes in earnest this spring, Kim and Brittney Bray will be hard at work once again. Amidst the mountains of concrete piled high in the southbound lanes and the heavy equipment, the mother/daughter duo will be working as operating engineers and members of IUOE Local 49.
Their family legacy in the trades began with Kim’s brother who worked as a piledriver. “My brother told me they needed women and I was interested in joining the union. I went in and applied and got the job,” Kim said, now an 11-year veteran who started as a roller operator. The long hours and hard work don’t faze her. Her days as a working mother prepared her for life in the 49ers. “When I had kids when they were little I picked them up from day care and then I had to go back to work again. I’m used to working a lot.”
Her daughter Brittney graduated from Hamline with degrees in environmental studies and business. Soon thereafter she found herself at a dead end. “At the time (right out of college) I was working a call center job that I had worked at in college and I was pretty much miserable, sitting inside the office during the summer. Working at an office job stuck in a chair all day pretty much wasn’t my thing,” she explained. Like her mom, she heard the 49ers were looking for women so she applied. She made it into the apprentice program and eventually became a journeyworker.
They both enjoy the benefits of the work they do, but when they work they REALLY work. Working on the I-35W project involves long hours. During the summer, it’s meant 12-hour days, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and maybe longer, working six days a week, sometimes seven. The project involves lots of people from several different crews because the work is so varied. New bridges, walls for the sides of the highway, underground roads, utilities like water, sewer and electrical work — lots of construction you don’t see when you’re driving by. “We often work on top of each other with the different crews,” Brittney said. “You get used to the long hours. It can catch up on you as far as getting things done around the house and having a life. But the paychecks are good and the benefits are nice.”
One of the benefits for them has been having winters off from work. Brittney went to Thailand in December and Kim planned a trip to Houston for the two of them to see a Rolling Stones concert. Added Brittney, “You just have to be careful what you spend your money on during the summertime. If you budget things out, you can make it work.”