Edwina Patterson, a member of Laborers Local 563 in Minneapolis, is in Washington, D.C., this week to be honored for her work to advocate for more people of color in the Building Trades.
Patterson is one of 10 finalists for the Edna Social Justice Award given by the Berger-Marks Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to supporting the leadership of young women in the labor movement. The 2017 winner is Angelica Clarke, executive director of the Albany Social Justice Center. Patterson said she “was excited to be nominated and overjoyed to be a finalist.”
Patterson, who is 32, became a Laborer in 2013 after working 12 years as a nurse’s assistant. While she loved working in health care, it was a struggle to live on a salary that averaged $30,000 a year. Her work as Laborer on highway heavy and road construction projects pays twice as much, she said.
Patterson started out directing traffic as a flagger and now does “anything from traffic control to hooking up pipe, mixing mud. I’ll get down there in the trenches sometimes …” she said. “You learn a lot and you get to be around a lot of other trades.”
While her work is manual labor, she uses her people skills to promote the union and help others. Other workers, whom she calls “her family,” often phone her when they have questions or contact her through Facebook.
Patterson, who is African-American, is a core member of the People of Color Union Members (POCUM) caucus at the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and is active in Minnesota Tradeswomen.
“We’re trying to get the hiring goals raised for women in the state of Minnesota,” she said. “We’re also trying to change our construction culture. We want our jobs to more inclusive to all.”
Prior to being a finalist for the Edna Award, she received the Emerging Tradeswoman Award from the Women Build Nations conference. In January, she was one of12 tradeswomen selected to participate in “Building Bridges 2017:The First U.S. Tradeswomen Delegation to India.” She also was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Kerry Jo Felder, leader organizer for POCUM, said Patterson “quickly became part of the core leadership because of her passion and commitment to seeing employers and unions intentionally include those that have been historically under-represented for far too long in the building and construction trades … her dedication to wanting more for her community, family and friends runs through her veins and stirs her to be part of the change, demanding justice.”
Patterson “puts action behind her words,” said Laborer Joanne Hager, in nominating her for the Edna Award. “Edwina is very passionate about telling others how to enter the trades, particularly others who have gone through numerous life struggles like she has … To have that championed by a young woman of 32 is truly inspiring.”
Patterson downplays the accolades, calling her advocacy “the right thing to do.”
She balances work, family and union commitments, noting, “Our membership needs to be more involved, now more than ever.”
The Edna Award finalists will be recognized at a reception Thursday, Feb. 9, in Washington, D.C. In addition to Patterson and Clarke, the others are Award of Distinction winners Jessica Carmona Cabrera of the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance and Cathy Dang of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities; and finalists Suhad Babaa of Just Vision, Diana Colin of the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, Maria Noel Fernandez of Working Partnerships USA, Manisha Mashaal of #DalitWomenFight and the Swabhiman Society, Diana Robinson of Food Chain Workers Alliance and Yasmin Vafa of Rights4Girls.
The award is named for Edna Berger, a pioneer for women’s rights who rose from a receptionist at The Philadelphia Inquirer to become a writer, editor and the first female organizer in The Newspaper Guild-CWA.