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Black Americans and women continue to face discrimination in skilled trades

The winter storms that devastated Texas last month led to a major water crisis. But for weeks afterward, there weren't enough plumbers to help customers with the damage. All of this underscores the need for more of these skilled workers. But for women and workers of color, there can be even greater obstacles. Paul Solman has the story for our series "Work Shift."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The winter storms that devastated Texas last month led to a major water crisis.

    But for weeks afterward, there weren't enough plumbers to help customers with the damage. All of this underscores the need for more of these skilled workers.

    And yet, for women and workers of color, there can be even greater obstacles.

    Paul Solman has the story for our series Work Shift.

  • And a warning:

    This story includes sensitive subject matter.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    I was in a porta john one time. They picked me up with a crane.

  • Paul Solman:

    They were Adrienne Bennett's fellow workers during her five-year union plumbing apprenticeship in the early 1980s.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    And you're bouncing around in there, and you and you got that sewage, it's splashing all over you. You're afraid. You don't know what's going to happen.

  • Paul Solman:

    The point was rather obvious.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    Like the women before me, they wanted me to leave.

  • Paul Solman:

    Those women before her, all white, had quit. But Bennett survived, got high-level training, while not taking on college debt, was actually getting paid.

    In 1987, she became the first and still only Black female master plumber in North America. Now running your own firm in Detroit, Bennett says it isn't just the stigma of dirty work or the emphasis on college that keeps people like her from getting a hands-on education for high-paying jobs in the understaffed trades.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    I mean, this is a piece of artwork right here.

  • Paul Solman:

    Unsurprisingly perhaps, it's discrimination.

    Because you're a woman? Because you're Black?

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    I never — even to this day, I still can't answer that question.

    In those days, there was no place to me to go and complain. There was nobody I could go talk to.

  • Paul Solman:

    Women obviously make up half or more of the population, African Americans another 14 percent. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 8 percent of plumbers are Black.

    As for women, take Bennett's own union local.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    It's over one 1,500 members and 13 women.

  • Paul Solman:

    But just listen to what she endured from her fellow apprentices.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    Dead rats in my lunch box. And they were used to groping me.

  • Paul Solman:

    One of them savagely.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    He grabs me by my buttocks. And he lifts me up off the floor. And by him doing that, he's ripped my skin. It hurt.

    And I looked and there was blood. By this time, I was so tired of them putting their hands on me, I grabbed a pipe wrench out of my tool belt. And before I realized it, I came down on the top of his hardhat. And I said: "It stops today. You pass the word. The next (EXPLETIVE DELETED) that puts their hands on me will die, and I will go to prison happily."

  • Paul Solman:

    The hazing stopped. But the prejudice wasn't just against women.

    Even in heavily African American Detroit:

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    When I got into the trade, there were no Black men. They had left the union because they themselves were being called the N-word, being called a boy. You know, they were being treated like they were in the Deep South.

  • Paul Solman:

    Tonya Hicks is from the Deep South.

  • Tonya Hicks:

    Meridian, Mississippi.

  • Paul Solman:

    And she's another rarity in the trades.

  • Tonya Hicks:

    Only 3 percent of all the electricians in the United States are women, and I'm one of the 3 percent.

  • Paul Solman:

    And Blacks comprise less than 7 percent of the electrical trade. No wonder Hicks became Mississippi's first Black female journeyman back in 1999. She now runs her own firm in Atlanta. How tough was it for her?

  • Tonya Hicks:

    I had a foreman to tell me that all Black women do is get fat, have a bunch of kids and collect welfare.

  • Paul Solman:

    Growing up in Meridian, Mississippi, were you expecting to be treated as badly as you were treated?

  • Tonya Hicks:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    Why?

  • Tonya Hicks:

    I grew up in an environment where discrimination and racism was a daily thing. So, I didn't know anything different. My grandfather was stabbed 62 times, and they slit his throat.

  • Paul Solman:

    Why? What did he do?

  • Tonya Hicks:

    He was Black.

    So, when you learn that people hate and what hate does and what hate looks like and feels like, you don't know anything different. So, no, I expected it. But I was brave enough to go and hungry enough to stay.

  • Paul Solman:

    And tough enough to endure.

    But haven't things changed?

    How come more Black people, more women don't try to become electricians?

  • Tonya Hicks:

    It's hard to get a point of entry. Historically, women and minorities have been systematically kept out of these higher-paying skilled jobs. The unions have a history of it, including my own union.

    And when you do get in, there's no place for advancement.

  • Paul Solman:

    In addition, says Hicks:

  • Tonya Hicks:

    It's based on who you know. And that's how most people hire. They hire who they like and who they're comfortable with.

    So, if you don't have Black people in management, you don't have women in management, it won't change.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    Bring it up and then bring it all the way over.

  • Paul Solman:

    As Adrienne Bennett learned recently when she was interviewing African American plumber candidates.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    One guy said that he couldn't get into the union because he didn't have any connections. He should have been able to go to that union hall, knock on the door and say, I want an application to get in.

    "Who do you know?"

    "I don't know nobody."

    They shut the door.

  • Paul Solman:

    But Bennett does think things are changing.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    The U.A., which is United Association, which is for the piping trades, on a national level, the president at the conference this year, he made a mandate that harassing, hazing is going to stop. The workplace is not a place for that.

    So, now it is better, but it's a mind-set that is generational. They still feel that they can say and do what they want.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.

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