By MARY ANN O'TOOLE HOLLEY
In 1983 Sherrie Ponder was a single mother with two young children, juggling two jobs to pay the rent and praying her family never got sick and needed insurance.
When her friend, former Laborers Local 42 Business Manager Ray Flynn, offered her an opportunity to join the union, she says it changed her life forever.
Ponder, 31 at the time, had been managing a restaurant and tending bar at the Oasis Supper Club near Fairmont Racetrack. The tips were great, she said, but she had no insurance, no benefits and no stable future for her children.
It was a time when women working in what had traditionally been viewed as male-dominated jobs were becoming more commonplace. The old “Laverne & Shirley” show, depicting two women as strong and independent brewery workers, was wrapping up its eighth and final season.
The Laborers were looking for women to meet federal mandates requiring a percentage of women and minorities on federally funded projects, and Ponder was ready. Joining the Laborers Union, she says, was an opportunity that changed her life.
HOLDING HER OWN: ‘I JUST PLUNGED IN AND DID THE WORK’
“Ray Flynn was our business manager at the time, and he believed in me,” said Ponder, who is now remarried, retired, a grandmother of 19 and great-grandmother of one. “The classes the union offered gave me the training I needed and my drive to succeed gave me strength.”
Her first job was at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in downtown St. Louis, a high-rise building that was built during a winter that holds the record as the coldest on U.S. record.
“I didn’t know it was the coldest winter on record, although it certainly was cold for me because I had never worked outside before,” Ponder said. “I just plunged in and did the work.”
At the Adam’s Mark, she was on an elevator when it fell seven floors —enough to startle any worker and maybe send them home. But not Ponder.
“When the elevator fell, I jammed my finger and went back to work,” Ponder said. “When I worked on the light rail system, the guys tried to give me an easier job, but I wanted to stay on the track. I didn’t want any breaks that the men wouldn’t get.”
She added, “I’m not a quitter. “You won’t find five Laborers who don’t respect me.”
She got her start with working with the plasterers, cleaning walls, but she ended up mixing for four to six guys every day.
One of the guys told her to learn concrete and she’ll always find work. She did, and it all took off from there.
WITHOUT THE UNION, ‘MY LIFE WOULD BE ENTIRELY DIFFERENT’
“Becoming a union Laborer got me health insurance for me and my kids and my first brand new car – a new 1986 Thunderbird,” said Ponder.
When her children were younger, Ponder says, both needed braces –– something she could have never given them without the dental benefits her union negotiated.
“At the time, I never thought about being union from a pension perspective, but now that I’m retired, I realize that my life would be entirely different without it.”
Ponder says that if the union hadn’t been there, she would likely be on Medicaid, trying to get by on whatever savings she had, which likely wouldn’t have been much.
“I was tending bar and made a lot of money but didn’t have health insurance or benefits, and I had two kids I was raising,” Ponder said. “I never dreamed in a million years that I’d end up working in construction.”
Ponder said union benefits provided her family with a safety net, helping her husband, a 40-year member of the Communication Workers, who had to take early retirement.
“If we didn’t have our Union benefits, we would have nothing,” Ponder said. “Without our pensions, we would really be in trouble.
“My loyalty to Local 42 and our union representatives is over the top,” Ponder said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Ponder passed on her belief in unions to her children, telling them it’s all about staying loyal to your union and your union brothers and sisters, and treating people the way you want to be treated.
Today, her son Bill is a foreman for St. Louis Bridge and her grandson, Dustin Redwine, is an apprentice with McCarthy Building Companies, as a member of Local 42.
YOUNG WORKERS NEED TO TAKE NOTE
All those years ago, when she first put on her lime green Local 42 T-shirt and headed off to work, Ponder was making $12.57 per hour, plus benefits.
“That’s more than most non-union people make now, and it’s 34 years later,” Ponder said. “These young guys are spoiled. They have no idea how much it took to get unions where they are today. It started with blood, sweat and tears, and these young folks need to know how much there is to lose if we lose the strength of unions.”
Ponder was heavily involved in the fight to defeat Prop A, so-called “right-to-work,” in Missouri, canvassing and talking to everyone she knew about the importance of defeating the anti-union, anti-worker measure.
“I argued about the Prop A with my sisters, who were always pro-management. But they voted ‘No’ on Prop A,” Ponder said. “If Missouri had become a so-called ‘right-to-work’ state, it would have put everybody at the poverty level. Those corporations and big money donors don’t want to help create jobs for workers. They want to create low-paid jobs so they can have more money for themselves. We, the workers, would have nothing.”
UNION DUES PAY OFF
Ponder says she doesn’t understand why some of the younger people take unions so lightly.
“The thing with Prop A is that they pushed it on people that they can save money by not paying dues,” Ponder said. “But what is $33 a month in union dues when you realize what your union has given you?
She added, “I really hope and pray that those coming in welcome the chance to come into a union and want to pay dues. I hope they’ll be strong enough to understand. They will find out that $33 a month in dues is nothing compared to what will be lost if the unions go down. That’s less than you spend on cigarettes.”
Ponder says people who don’t get involved in their union often don’t understand the way it all works and how unions try to make lives better for working men and women.
“I’m so proud of the work I’ve done as a Laborer, and thankful to Local 42 for how they helped me change my life.”
LEAVING HER MARK
While at this year’s annual Local 42 Retirees baseball game at Busch Stadium, Ponder glanced across the stadium, proudly admiring the cityscape that she played a part in building and reflected on completion of the shining silver dome atop the Thomas Eagleton Courthouse.
“When they got finished with construction, those who worked on the Courthouse were asked to sign one of the main beams at the top of the globe,” Ponder said. “My nephew, who worked with the Insulators, and I both signed the beam, so our names are up there on the front” –– a long way from the Oasis Supper Club.