By MARY ANN O'TOOLE HOLLEY
EAST ST. LOUIS, IL – When Lynn Woesthaus was growing up, all the kids in her neighborhood were athletic and adventurous. When she got married and had children, she encouraged that same spirit in her daughter Alissa.
It is, perhaps, no surprise then, that the strong, adventurous mother and daughter both became union iron workers, members of East St. Louis Local 392.
Neither one ever thought they’d end up climbing 60 feet into the air to walk along 10-inch beams, become welding certified to connect the giant pieces of steel into exactly the right place, or work in the freezing cold anchoring beams to the grip of a giant crane to build some of our area’s largest bridges and buildings. But that’s exactly what they did, each finding a niche in the union building trades – in a job not cut out for everyone.
WOMEN CAN DO THE JOB
Ironworkers Local 392’s President/Business Agent John Herrington said there are about 15 women in the local, including the retirees. He said the first woman that signed was Barb Higgerson-Harmen, who joined in the early 1980s, and is now retired.
“We have had women who joined and left for different reasons. Some didn’t like it when they actually started doing it. They thought they’d be on the ground as welders and found themselves working 60 feet in the air,” Herrrington said. “But, I’ll tell you, I have had more guys quit than girls, percentage-wise. I’ve had guys leave for lunch and never come back.”
Herrington said in training, they have a virtual reality beam that allows workers to train to walk the beams.
“Some get on and freeze,” Herrington said. “I’ve worked around Lynn and she’s great, a great person overall to have on the job site, works very hard, is fearless and is knowledgeable. Alissa is just starting out, but I’ve never had a bad report. She does great on the job. It’s a great opportunity for anyone. Women can do this job. I just wish we had more who would try it.”
SKY'S THE LIMIT
Lynn had worked as a bank teller and in various clerical jobs before finding her place with the Ironworkers. When she first started working as a younger woman, she said, clerical jobs were easy to come by, and she bounced from one to another looking for better pay.
It wasn’t until her union Ironworker uncle Rollie Woesthaus told her if she wanted a better job she should become an Ironworker, that she thought about making a serious change. She had cousins who were Ironworkers, too, and they all told her the ups and the downs of the job and what to expect.
“Finally, he convinced me to try it, and I did,” Lynn recalled. “He’s retired now, but continues to pay his dues.”
Today, Lynn is a proud 30-year member of Ironworkers Local 392 in Illinois. Her daughter, Alissa, is now a third-year apprentice.
“I couldn’t believe I went from wearing high heels at Magna Bank in Belleville, got a phone call from the Ironworkers business agent, and the next day I was in steel-toe boots, standing on top of a sky-high beam,” Lynn said. “He told me, ‘Why give them two-weeks notice when you’re never going back?’”
Alissa says following in her mother’s footsteps seemed logical because she has seen how much her mother enjoys her job.
GROWING UP FEARLESS
Growing up in Fairview Heights and East St. Louis, Lynn said she and her friends were always up for adventure.
“We’d walk across big trees that had fallen over creeks. We did hillbilly stuff and bravery tests,” Lynn said. “We were strong and fearless.”
That strength and fearlessness served her well. When she met her first female co-worker, she said, and watched her tie rebar, she thought, “Wow, she’s cool. I want to be like her because she was really working hard and doing her job.
“I loved being an Ironworker from the first day,” she said. “I learned how to walk the iron really quick.”
Years later, when Alberici asked her if she wanted to work an hour overtime on the construction of the Stan Musial Bridge, she said yes, not knowing what she’d be doing.
“I had to walk out to the end of the plank of the iron where the only thing past my toes was air,” she said. “It was like a giant diving board. Nothing above your head. It was a lot of fun. That was my most exciting job, and when I drive across that bridge, I think it’s absolutely beautiful. And to think I helped build it!”
HARD WORK AND UNION SECURITY
Lynn is a certified welder, thanks to the training she received through her union. “I love to weld,” she said. “To me, it’s like a giant art project.”
The stability of being a union Ironworker, and the wage increases and benefits she received over the years, she said, helped her raise two daughters.
She was working on the Alton Lock and Dam when she was eight months pregnant with Alissa.
“My OB/GYN said I didn’t have to change my normal work habits,” Lynn said. “He probably didn’t know what I did, so I kept on working. To me it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, and my kids ended up being pretty good.”
Alissa, now 26, is a third-year apprentice Ironworker.
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
Alissa earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in occupational safety from Murray State University in Kentucky, and had planned to move to Gulf Shores, Ala., after graduation, but life’s expenses got in the way.
“I ended up moving home to save some money, and ended up getting a job at the YWCA as the aquatic coordinator where I hired and trained lifeguards,” Alissa said. “I loved it, but I just wasn’t getting paid enough.”
Back came Great Uncle Rollie, once again suggesting the Ironworkers.
Alissa told her mom she was thinking about becoming an Ironworker because of how much her mom loved it.
Lynn said she explained the job, the weight of the steel, the heights and challenges, but there was no changing her mind.
“I spent all that money on college, but you can never have too much schooling,” Lynn said. “It will never hurt her, and she still wants to continue her pursuit of safety classes, possibly moving forward to work as a construction safety manager.”
Alissa joined Local 392 in 2017. This August will mark her fourth year, she says proudly.
“The guys will try to mess with me to see if they can break me down, but I know them so well,” Alissa said. “They’ll say something and I don’t let them get under my skin. I dish it back. I feel that’s where I gained a lot of respect.”
Having the right personality for the job helps, she said, because razzing just goes with the training.
“They mess with me a lot in fun, but as soon as it’s another trade messing with me, the Ironworker men are there to defend me…. If they know something else is going on in your life, they will 100 percent stand up for me. They are like brothers,” she said.
“My mom is a good example of that. She’d tell me to be quiet; shut your mouth. I respect her as my mom and my union sister. We put up a building together at Prairie State in Marissa; me and my mom and another guy. We work well together, but I feel like regardless of her being my mom, it’s about the job we’re doing.”
‘NEVER STOP LEARNING’
Since Alissa joined the Ironworkers, she’s also been taking classes that complement her university minor in safety. She completed the OSHA-510 course and has a few other courses under her belt.
“The union has provided so many classes. I’m taking a silica class this weekend. They certified me for stick welding. It’s continual training,” Alissa said. “I’ll tell you I’ve worked with men who have done this for 30 years and they tell me you never stop learning. It’s a never-ending learning, and my union provides that training.”
When she attended Murray State, she says, she had a few friends who went to work for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in Kentucky, a so-called “right-to-work” state.
“My friends were going out on the job sites and going by the books. I decided to do things differently, because I thought it would be best to get experience in the field. There are a lot of things I learned in the field that you can’t get from school,” she said. “That’s the best part of being an apprentice – learning while you’re working, and obviously getting paid.
IT'S A LIFESTYLE
“It’s not a job for everyone,” Alissa said. “It’s a complete and total mindset when you’re climbing in the air, working with heavy equipment. Being an ironworker is a lifestyle. No matter what, you’re always in danger and you have to be aware of your surroundings. But in the Ironworkers union, we’re more than a brotherhood. You care about these people and want to make sure they go home safely. That’s what we do… and we have the backing of our union halls to help us.”