The challenges of being the only woman on a pipeline crew

Diane Schenker (far right) poses with “Pops” (center right) a heavy equipment operator. (Photo courtesy of: Diane Schenker)

In 1976, Diane Schenker had recently graduated from Reed College and was living in Fairbanks when she heard a rumor that the Pipeliners 798, a welding union, had been forced to hire women to help build the trans-Alaska pipeline.

A 21-year-old with no experience in construction, Schenker convinced the union office manager to let her work with an all-male crew of welders from the South.

Years later Diane Schenker would testify in a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Union 798 for discrimination against women and minorities. Schenker is now retired and living in Anchorage.

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SCHENKER: I wasn’t worried about them not wanting me there because I was female. My biggest worry was that I really wouldn’t to be able to do it.  That it would be too physically hard, and that I’d oversold myself. I didn’t even know what a welding rod is.

Unbeknownst to me before I arrived they had heard the rumor that they might be forced to have women on their crews and they had made this big pact amongst themselves that if any females showed up, nobody would ever speak to that female. And so that lasted about four hours.

They gave me what they thought was the worst job on the crew, which is crawling along on your hands and knees under the pipeline a mile or so back from the rest of the crew all by yourself and picking up the spent welding rod butts. They thought that was just the worst thing they could do to somebody, and to me it was just — I loved it!

Ronnie from Louisiana grinds a welding pass. When Diane Schenker was assigned to a grinding job, she says most of the crew threatened to quit because they thought the task was too dangerous for women. (Photo courtesy of: Diane Schenker)

I used to joke with the guys on the crew about all the guff they had given me about, “Oh you know women can’t do this work,” and I would tell them, “You couldn’t wait tables for five seconds. I mean I’ve carried more weight on a tray than I’ve had to do in this job.”

The rule was if you were a welder’s helper — if you put in so many hours — then you got your union card. You got to join the union. So when I had put all my hours in, I went to whoever was in charge and said, “Hey, I did it. I have my hours. I want my card now,” and they said no.

He made it perfectly clear that I could keep asking about my card and he’d have me fired immediately, or I could just drop it and never bring it up again. He said, “You know you might win in the long run, but meanwhile you’ll be out of a job and all that money.”

Several of them actually came up and kind of grudgingly admitted that they didn’t think women would work, and they thought it was great that I was working. They really dropped the animosity. They never dropped the pornography and the sexual references, you know the kind of day to day sexism, but they weren’t mad or trying to get me hurt after that.

There was a lot of joking and horsing around — practical jokes. One guy threw me in a little pond of water one day, and I told the crew, “You like to joke and kid around all the time, but don’t throw me in the water because I don’t know how to swim.” One guy threw me in the water anyway, and you know it was scary for me because I really can’t swim, and I had to struggle to get out of there. The crew just ran him off immediately. I mean that minute he went back on the bus and was flown out of the camp. So you know, they had kind of come around to being my friends.

This story is part of Midnight Oil, a new podcast from Alaska’s Energy Desk.