By Sheri Gassaway
Gina Walsh has long been known as a champion for working class people and women in the trades.
The 58-year-old Missouri senator (D-Bellefontaine Neighbors) draws upon her experience as the first woman to go through Heat & Frost Insulators Local 1 apprenticeship program and her more than 30 years in the union to mentor women considering non-traditional careers and to provide insight for women currently in the trades.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR SISTERS
Walsh, who serves as the first female president of the Missouri State Building and Construction Trades Council, said the most important advice for labor union women is to get involved in their locals and communities and to lift each other up.
However, she noted that in the grand scheme of life, sometimes that’s easier said than done. She said Alise Martiny, business manager of the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades, serves as her reminder of how far women have come in the Labor Movement and the importance of having each other’s backs.
“Every time I call Alise, she says, ‘I got ya sister,’” Walsh said. “It’s a reminder to me that we’ve made it up here, and it’s our job to pull the rest of the women forward and to take care of our sisters.”
NO ‘I’ IN TEAM
Walsh also uses her experience in the Labor Movement to fight for workers rights at the state level. During her last four years as a Democratic senator in District 13, she’s opposed right-to-work, paycheck deception and anti-prevailing wage legislation.
She urges union members to unite in the battle against anti-worker legislation by helping to educate others on the harmful effects it could have on the working class society as a whole.
“You have to remember there’s no ‘I’ in team,” Walsh said. “If we don’t stand together as one – whether we’re men, women, a working class society, union members – we’re doomed to fail.”
While many are well aware of Walsh’s career with Insulators Local 1, her first union job was with Elevator Contractors Local 3. Walsh learned of the opportunity with Local 3 through John Flynn, her cousin’s husband.
Walsh was working at a bank when Flynn, who was serving as the business manager of Bricklayers Local 1, called to inquire whether she would be interested in the position with the Elevator Constructors.
“I asked him how much the job paid,” Walsh said. “He told me, and I said, ‘I can start Monday.’”
Later, Walsh found out that the Insulators Union was accepting applications for its apprenticeship program. One of her brother’s friends told her she’d never make it into the program because she was a woman.
“Well that just made me want to get in all the more,” she said. “I applied for the program and nine months later, I got the call. I was shocked.”
As the first woman to be accepted into the program, Walsh said she studied hard in school and worked to prove herself.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “I think everybody was nervous, but if they didn’t want me there, they didn’t let on.”
A UNION FAMILY
Walsh, a North St. Louis County native, grew up in a union family who instilled her values of working class people. Her father was a member of the Teamsters, and several of her brothers and sisters and extended family members are in unions.
Both Walsh and her late husband Jim had union careers. She said, “Those negotiated wages kept our family afloat a lot of times and helped us provide opportunities for our children we might otherwise not have had.”
One of those opportunities included being able to put all three daughters through college. Walsh’s youngest daughter, who has a degree in education, decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and is now a second-year apprentice at Insulators Local 1.
Walsh was elected to her District 13 Missouri Senate seat in 2012 and currently serves as assistant minority floor leader. She recently filed for a second term in office.
Prior to her work in the Senate, she served four terms in the Missouri House of Representatives in North St. Louis County’s District 69, which included Bellefontaine Neighbors, Glasgow Village, Jennings, Moline Acres and Riverview.
Walsh is also a member of the North County Labor Legislative Club, the St. Ferdinand and Spanish Lake Democratic clubs and the Greater North County Chamber of Commerce. She also serves on the Marygrove Governing Board and the North County Incorporated Board of Directors.
MAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF
While Walsh is highly involved in her career and the community, she said it’s important to “make time for yourself” in order to maintain a sense of balance.
“I try to spend as much time as I can with my family, especially my grandchildren,” she said. “We have a big family, and we’re all very close.”
Walsh also said she enjoys reading well written political dramas and books on American History.