A different kind of water warriors

Water cistern in San Francisco, California. Photo: Mark Hogan.
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“Amy, you’re a hard-working mammal.” This good-natured clowning may not sound like a compliment, but in the construction world when you’re a woman in dirty overalls that everyone mistakes for a man, those words are a mark of respect from co-workers. Yes, I am a union plumber.

In my 16 years at the San Francisco Water Department, the number of women and people of color in these strenuous but decent-paying jobs has dwindled.

Amy Gray-Schlink

Being the only woman, or one of very few women in a job, brings its challenges. But I don’t blame my male co-workers for that. Over the years some of them have defended me and my right to do the job.

My anger is for the top brass who pay lip service to me and my co-workers of color while fostering abuse on the job and overwhelmingly hiring white men. Currently, I’m the only woman plumber. There used to be two of us. My sister Lily Preciado was killed in a tragic on-the-job accident last year that was completely preventable.

When Lily, a hard worker, great teammate and single mom, was killed, it sparked anger across our workplace. Plumbers, truck drivers, custodians, secretaries, engineers and employees throughout the utility realized that we all suffer management abuse. The differences between us began to dissolve as we started to look out for each other.

I discovered that my female co-workers in other disciplines face much the same sexism as I do. And they too often felt alone in fighting. I’m not surprised they do, but I’m glad for the chance to link up. Likewise, we’ve all had our eyes opened wider to the specific realities of racism, ageism and the invisibility of queer folk (like me!) at our job.

Many of us turned our anger toward organizing and we formed a group called Strength in Numbers (SIN). We gathered signatures from 10 different departments on a letter to the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, an unprecedented show of unity.

We have organized public meetings. And when the Commission head tried to crash our open house held to discuss management abuses, we insisted this was our space as rank and file workers and he had to leave. We enjoyed flexing our collective muscles and defending our right to organize!

Our work has brought some victories, notably a few long-sought safety measures. And more workers feel empowered to speak out!

SIN is fighting for basic demands: safe working conditions, an end to management bullying, and enforcement of civil service rules. We say no to long-term “at-will” employment, which creates second class workers able to be let go without a reason despite years of dedicated service. Because this was Lily’s predicament after eight years, her family was denied death benefits.

Finally, we want to stop San Francisco from giving away public, union jobs to private engineering firms, to keep our precious water in public hands. In California, we need only look at Pacific Gas & Electric and its bailouts, bankruptcy and blackouts, to see that profit incentive in a public resource is a very bad idea!

Years ago, affirmative action brought women and people of color into domains previously monopolized by white males. At last we had access to better paying jobs! We need to bring affirmative action back and expand it! Labor was part of the fight to win this important reform and rank-and-file workers need to push our unions to get behind it again!

A diverse group of people relying on each other on the job breaks down barriers that an inhumane economic system has placed in our way — to the benefit of all. To me, Strength In Numbers is a revival of this legacy of solidarity. Led by women and people of color, we are all races and genders wanting to fight shoulder to shoulder for each other.

Every morning I give my kids a kiss before I leave for work. That’s my promise to them that I will come home safe that night. After Lily was killed, that goodbye took on a deeper meaning.

When I get to work, I have a goofy nickname or silly handshake for my co-workers. It’s a fun way to start the day, but those gestures are also my promise that I’m someone they can count on as we try to survive and win some victories to improve our lives.

Working mammals of the world, UNITE!

Send comments or questions on how to get involved with SIN to

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