St. Paul, Minn., Local 110 member Robin Chuhel has been advocating for women in the trades for her entire career. This year, she finally was recognized for it.
“I was shocked," Chuhel said. "I didn't think I'd win any award. There are so many women doing such great things. I feel very appreciative to have won this honor."
Minnesota-based Women Building Success, an organization founded in 2017 to recognize and promote the achievements of women in union construction trades, awarded Sister Chuhel with its Advocate of the Year award, given out at its annual event held on June 1.
"She has not only taught the women in our local how to be better in our industry, she has taught the whole industry how to be better for women," said Local 110 Business Manager Jamie McNamara in his submission letter nominating Chuhel for the award.
Chuhel, an Air Force veteran, joined Local 110 in 1994 after completing her military service. The journeyperson's electrical work at St. Paul Public Schools, where she also served as a steward, was a good place for her to recruit, train and help retain as many women in the field as possible, McNamara said.
"From day one Robin dedicated her time in the construction industry to making sure everyone who entered the trades felt welcome and was treated with dignity and respect," McNamara said.
Chuhel also served for close to 20 years in a leadership role on the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, where she had a hand in hiring.
"She was always advocating, sometimes loudly, for better pay and benefits for apprentices, professing that it is our job to make sure our apprentices are the best trained, most diverse, and well-rounded electricians in the state," McNamara said. "She felt a responsibility to ensure that everyone that applied to be an electrician had a fair shot at lifting their families into the middle class like she had done for her own."
Chuhel knows first-hand how a career in the union construction trades can change the trajectory of a family, having raised four sons on her IBEW salary.
"I was on welfare before I found the IBEW," she said. "My life, and my sons' lives, changed so much when I was accepted into Local 110. I could finally take care of my kids and not have to worry about money. I felt like I was free."
Chuhel retired last September and says she mostly misses the people she worked with, as well as the work itself.
"I loved being an electrician," she said. "I've had to start walking more now just to stay in shape. I never feel like I'm moving enough."
While Chuhel says true equality in the trades probably won't happen in her lifetime, she is hopeful for the future.
"The women today feel like they can do anything," she said. "This generation is so much more open and willing to speak up. They feel like they belong more. And why not? We're 50% of the population. It's time to let us in."
Chuhel, who was also a member of Local 110's women's committee, credits McNamara and the local's other leadership with being open and inclusive when it comes to supporting women members.
"Jamie's a great guy. He was my first teacher too," she said. "Having a good business manager that truly accepts women makes life a lot easier. You might run into a big, fat, closed door along the way, but if that door is at Local 110, they'll let you in."
The WBS event, which hadn't been held as an in-person ceremony for the last two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, had about 250 tradespeople in attendance, said Minneapolis Local 292 Assistant Business Manager Jennifer Mudge, who helped co-found the organization.
"As a woman in the construction trades, I went years working without any other female electrical workers or other tradeswomen," Mudge said. "Events like these provide an opportunity for women in my area to meet and connect with other women in the trades, and that is incredibly valuable."
Mudge also noted the importance of IBEW locals being involved with groups like WBS.
"Being involved with a positive secondary organization like WBS only helps with retention of women in the IBEW," Mudge said. "And having IBEW sisters winning awards shows we have strong, smart and driven women within our union who are deserving of recognition."
The event, which also gave out awards for Journey Worker of the Year and Apprentice of the Year, included a recorded video message from Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
"When our tradeswomen succeed, our economy succeeds," Klobuchar said. "And when our economy succeeds, America succeeds."