Now, today, it seems like a good story. But in the late 1970s, it was a reminder that nothing would be easy for Jeri Porter, a first-year apprentice in training and the only woman in her class.

She was working on her first jobsite when she realized the workers’ bathroom was for men only.

“They didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me into the office to use that bathroom,” she said. “The secretaries leaped up and started screaming bloody murder that a dirty construction worker would sully up their bathroom.”

So much so that office staffers called police, thinking a man was using a restroom reserved for women after they saw work boots from underneath a stall.

Jeri Porter has been a mentor to women across the country working in the trades.
Jeri Porter has been a mentor to women across the country working in the trades.

Despite the embarrassment of being the cause of an uproar, Porter quietly went back to work. It’s the attitude she used during her 30 years as an active IBEW member. It was one she took while becoming the mayor of Roslyn, Wash., her hometown.

And it’s one she tries to pass on to female electricians today. Porter spends much of her time in retirement mentoring young women as they make their way in the industry.

“She was there in the forefront to break up the misconceptions people had for the women behind her,” Portland, Ore., Local 48 journeyman wireman Carole Cobb said. “She gave us a better name.”

Or as Atlanta Local 613 apprentice Candice Edge put it: “I think it’s her destiny to share her legacy. She does that through each person that she reaches out to.”

Porter grew up in an era that if she was a “Jerry” instead of a “Jeri,” she likely would have been viewed as a typical candidate for apprenticeship.

Her father, a member of the United Mine Workers, died when she was 10.  Porter said she was always eager to help when uncles and other friends came by to help with household projects, such as fixing electrical outlets or laying a linoleum floor. She excelled in science and math in school.

“Instead of getting dolls, I always wanted an Erector Set,” she said. “That wasn’t considered appropriate back then.”

Thus, Porter took her mother’s advice and pursued becoming a teacher. Off she went to Central Washington University.

Money was running low by her junior year, however. A friend who was a union painter suggested the trades, so Porter applied for the Longview, Wash., Local 970 (amalgamated into Local 48 in 2011) apprenticeship program in 1978. She was the first woman in its jurisdiction to become an inside wireman when she topped out in 1982.

Partly because work was scarce in the area, and partly because of her sense of adventure, Porter decided to become a traveler. She worked on projects in Florida, California, Massachusetts and Texas, where she met her husband, David Porter, also a journeyman inside wireman.

“I would come to a new jurisdiction and be accepted at face value,” David Porter said. “She would go on the same job and have to prove herself all over again.”

Take what happened when Jeri was named a foreman during a stint at the Diablo Canyon power plant in southern California. Most of the 10 employees who reported to her – all males – walked off the job in protest.

“I thought they were stupid,” Jeri Porter said. “What’s wrong with you guys? But I just took it in stride. I didn’t get mad at them. They started trickling in when they found out how ridiculous they were.”

That might have discouraged some women. Not Porter.

“She doesn’t see them as roadblocks,” Edge said. “She sees them as challenges with the potential to build her career. That’s one of the most amazing qualities about her.”

Added her husband: “That was the early years. After she had been around a little bit, when she was accepted and she was known, she would go on the job and see that other people supported her.”

David Porter, who grew up in San Antonio, moved to Roslyn with Jeri in 1985 to care for her ailing mother. They have been there ever since. Jeri remained a traveler until she became an active member of Local 970 in 1995 after taking a maintenance job at Central Washington, the school she left nearly 20 years earlier.

“She always held her head high,” said Sue Harris, former office manager for Local 970 who now works in membership development for Local 48. “She was always kind. Anytime she experienced hatred and jealousy, she took the high road.”

Harris said that as much as Porter loved the male-dominated job, she frequently brought in baked cookies for her co-workers. She took a collection for Harris’ daughter when she was born. Instead of giving the money to the family immediately, she invested it in silver, Harris said. Her daughter nearly had enough money to buy a new car when she turned 18.

“She always looked for ways to help,” Harris said.

The insults gave way to respect. Porter was named the Eastern Washington Tradeswoman of the Year in 2000 by the state’s Women in Trades organization. She became active in her hometown, being elected first to the city council and serving as mayor from 2004-11.

Porter said working as a union steward taught her how to have difficult conversations and to build a consensus among parties with differing views.

“I tried to be a good leader, to get people together to talk out their differences,” she said. “When you get people working together, even at opposite ends, there’s an understanding to agree but not be disagreeable.”

The back and neck injuries Porter suffered during a 2007 fall forced her to take a medical retirement. It didn’t slow her involvement with the IBEW.

She already had been serving as a mentor to young women entering the trades. The combination of more time and the advent of social media allowed her to do so with women from across the country.

“We’re family,” she said. “We take care of each other. That’s what a union is all about.”

Edge will complete her apprenticeship later this year. She met Porter in 2010 during an IBEW reunion in Leavenworth, Washington, that Edge attended. Porter has been her mentee ever since.

“It’s still a difficult role [as a woman going through an apprenticeship], but it’s easier for me than those that came before us,” Edge said. “She is one of the most loving people I could have surrounded myself with. She cares a lot about the younger generation and maintaining the integrity of the IBEW.”

Cobb, who said she often associated more with men on the job because they usually are more established in their careers, was convinced by Porter of the importance of reaching out to women, especially those who might be struggling.

“She says we all have our own struggles and we have to help each other out,” said Cobb, who has worked as a foreman on some jobs. “We have to teach them. We’re in the brotherhood and we have to do our part.”

Porter doesn’t deny there were difficult times along the way, but those turned into positives. She fondly recalls a former supervisor she used to call “Grouch” because he was so ornery toward her, but eventually turned into a good friend.

“Those are the things that I’m proudest of,” she said.

Blazing a path for others was something to be proud of, too.

“She has always pushed that the only limitations we have are the ones we set on ourselves,” Edge said. “Your abilities are unlimited. As a woman, you have to hear that. You have to have those reinforcements that you’re 100 percent capable.”

 Home page photo credit: By James Allenspach under a Flick/Creative Commons agreement.