Inspired by Tragedy, O'Leary created the "Be That One Guy" campaign to teach "upstanders" hot to deflect a harrassment situation. (Photos by Jessica Savidge)
By Janice L. Tuchman, Debra K. Rubin, and Scott Blair
In February 2017, Outi Hicks, a 32-year-old union carpenter apprentice and single mother of three, was bludgeoned with a metal pipe by Aaron Lopez, a part-time nonunion worker at a biomass plant construction site in Fresno, Calif. He was still hitting her when workers reached them and pulled him off. What Hicks’ union colleagues didn’t know was that Lopez, employed by the project scaffolding supplier, had harassed her for days. Hicks died, and Lopez was charged with first-degree murder, but he pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. With treatment since, he has been ruled competent for trial, but that may not occur in 2019, his attorney says.
“All tradeswomen were shaken to their absolute core the day that happened,” says Vicki L. O’Leary, a 30-plus-year union ironworker veteran who now is the international union’s general organizer for safety and diversity. She is also a high profile advocate for women in the North American Building Trades Unions as it and the industry address challenges in boosting their workforce numbers. After Hicks’ murder, union women flocked to social media to share their fear and frustration. “I realized then that every woman who has worked construction has been, at some time in her career, afraid. This fear isn’t about being injured during the work itself, but for her personal safety,” she says.
O’Leary and the others wondered why “there couldn’t be that one guy” who could have prevented such a tragedy. That palpable concern led to a pilot program she conceived—Be That One Guy. With strong buy-in from Ironworkers International General President Eric Dean, the program now is being rolled out to union members. It is geared to train those on site to be “upstanders” who can deflect or change the tone of a tough situation. “We can no longer stand by because we never know when someone could flip just like this guy did on Outi Hicks,” O’Leary says.
O’Leary and Dean also had heard at a conference comments by Bridget Booker, a union member from Peoria, Ill., who had worked while pregnant, hiding her condition under baggy clothes. She miscarried at 16 weeks. Similar stories and pleas for guidance from women ironworkers also reached them. Pregnancy coverage and paid post-delivery maternity leave is now a reality (see p. 37). “We wanted to make sure our members didn’t have to choose between having a family and working,” says O’Leary.
Susan Eisenberg, a former union electrician and now a Brandeis University educator who has chronicled the struggles of construction women in several books, notes O’Leary’s “ability to connect grassroots tradeswomen, union leaders and contractors, so they can all be heard and lead together.” Eisenberg is impressed by the methodical rollout of the two programs “combined with education to bring everyone forward,” and says O’Leary “leads by example, demonstrating that advancing women, advancing unions and advancing the industry are inseparable goals,” Eisenberg says.
For framing harassment as a safety issue and creating a program that works toward prevention, for her pioneering effort to provide ironworker women with a key workplace benefit to attract and retain them, and for her push to use the reach and muscle of the union movement to boost workplace quality and career potential for women at a time of critical need, the editors of ENR have chosen Vicki O’Leary as the winner of its 2019 Award of Excellence.
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