Tammie O’Dell, LU 70
Member since 1975
How did you get into the industry?
I graduated from college and I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had a bunch of roommates that worked in construction. I was the college kid living in the basement. They said that I couldn’t possibly do what they did, that I wouldn’t last a month. Back then, the quickest way to get me to do something was to tell me I couldn’t. I started going out to job sites and the boss would say that I had to be union to work there. I would go to the union and the union would say that I had to find a contractor to hire me before I could be union. Despite the catch 22 and the clear efforts to discourage me, I persevered and ultimately found my first job and got in the union apprenticeship.
This new career was the first time in my life that I had faced this kind of challenge and my brain loved it. So, I got into the union on a dare. Those guys still owe me a case of beer. I did last quite a bit more than a month.
Being a carpenter is physically and mentally challenging – I loved both aspects of the work. As I learned the trade and my body got more fit some of those challenges lessened. I really enjoyed the problem solving and creativity of being a carpenter. With time, my reputation grew and I was sought after but it was not easy. I recall the first time I made foreman in the 1980s at a refinery doing scaffold work, four of the six men quit because they wouldn’t work for a woman. Attitudes and the culture within our industry have transformed from then to now. I remember where we’ve been and am incredibly proud of the union we have become.
Do you have any favorite projects from over the years?
I have enjoyed my work on so many projects for so many different reasons that it is difficult to choose. I started out in Southern California doing residential construction, then moved to Washington and worked heavy and highway. During that time I also traveled to other states to do massive concrete projects. I worked crazy scaffolding projects. I settled in Washington and worked on some amazing commercial projects. One of the cool things about being a union carpenter is the sheer variety of skills you can attain and the career pathways you can take. During my career I have been able to do a lot of interesting things; I was a carpenter, a foreman, a superintendent. I monitored compliance with prevailing wage and taught a union pre-apprenticeship program.
There are so many projects that I am tickled to death to have been a part of. I am very pleased to be able to drive by and point out tangible things that I built over the years. I am also satisfied by the less tangible yet equally real things that I helped build. I have always been involved in my union. I believed in building a better union and bettering the lives and livelihoods of fellow workers. I worked hard at that. I was an officer in my locals and delegate to the councils as they evolved. I was on the very first executive board of this regional council and the first woman to hold that office. Now we have a woman EST. We have come a long way!
How has being a part of a union made a difference in your life?
It has made all the difference. My financial ship would have been sunk a long time ago if not for my union health benefits. Without those benefits, my son would not be alive today. The health benefits alone have made a huge difference in my family’s journey. In retirement, I earned benefits that have allowed me to retire with dignity. I am so very fortunate. For all the progress we have made, as a society, we have lost ground when it comes to pensions. I am lucky to possibly be in one of the last generations to enjoy this kind of pension.
Has union membership impacted your life in ways you did not expect?
Absolutely. There is a sense of brotherhood that exists in the union. In the beginning, I didn’t expect it to turn into that. In the early days, my union was not a support system. They actively tried to keep me out and get rid of me after I joined. That transformed over time and I recognize what the union has done for my working life. Some of the smartest people I have ever met and befriended have been brother and sister union members. I have met stellar people with passion and conviction. This has been a really unexpected benefit because I once doubted that any of those guys would accept me. I have a sense of belonging and being a part of something bigger than myself.
Do you have any short term or long term goals in your retirement as a Union Carpenter?
My goal every day is to wake up and find “the joy.” Play with the grandkids. Make something better.
For other people, I try and be the person I once needed that I didn’t have. I enjoy mentoring and continue to support some of my previous students, sisters in the brotherhood, and my local.
I keep busy. I currently represent labor on the Northwest Workforce Development Council – chairing several committees. I am also on the board of nonprofit Lydia Place whose mission is to disrupt the cycle of homelessness and promote sustained independence for current and future generations. I babysit my grandkids three days a week. I don’t know when I found time to work before.
Have you had mentors in your career? Have you been a mentor?
When I started there really were no mentors for me. That came much later. It is part of why I mentor now. I want to be for others what I wish I had back then. I have something to make up for. During the affirmative action years, I had a bad attitude toward other women coming into the trade who didn’t take the trade seriously. I feel ashamed that I challenged instead of helping them. By not welcoming them I added to their struggle. I regret that. I transformed my thinking and attitudes. The world has changed since and it is important for me to give back.
Do you have advice for those starting out in their career?
90% of everything is showing up. Don’t be insensitive and don’t be hypersensitive. Have a good sense of humor and a thick skin. Do what you love and love what you do. Each day “find the joy”.