History and the people who make it: Judith Davis

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

This is the 33rd in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

Judith Davis [D] was interviewed by Richelle Moore [M] in 2015.

D: I was born January 15, 1953 in Gainesville, Florida. My dad worked at the physical plant at the University. Mom was a baker for the school board. I was an only child. Even though they didn’t have a lot of money, I was always supported in anything I wanted that they could afford. I had a wonderful childhood.

I made some poor choices about college. I was offered a four year Blue Key scholarship to the University of Florida, and I turned it down to go to Emory, where I had already been accepted. Dad could only afford one semester there and, when the money ran out, I transferred back; my scholarship was gone, so I was going to school part-time and working part-time jobs.

For about three or four years, I pumped gas, I delivered newspapers between here and Valdosta. I was a bartender for about a year and a group of electricians came in. One of them told me that they figured I was too smart to be doing what I was doing, and you ought to get in the apprenticeship program. And I’m like, are there any girls in it? No. But, we think you could do it. So I applied and took the test. You could tell they really didn’t want a girl in the program. We’re talking about 1976, and there had never been a woman applicant.

I was the first in Florida. They worried about requirements that the federal government had about women and blacks being allowed. So I got the letter of acceptance. It was the only way that in four years I could go from minimum wage to fifteen or sixteen dollars an hour, which at the time was big money.

Part of the requirement back then was 8,000 work hours and four years of school. You had a journeyman that you were assigned to, and whatever his project was for the day. Apprentices did all the dirty work – I spent quite a bit of time digging ditches.

M: Were they harder on you for being a woman?

D: Constantly. It kind of depended on how country they were, really. The city boys I guess were more used to seeing women out and about doing things, but the ones raised by dads that were like, she needs to be barefoot and pregnant, came with that attitude. I think they started out being afraid they would have to do their share of the work and mine. I didn’t let that happen. I worked harder than the guys to be accepted at the same level they were.

I started out residential and light commercial: wiring houses, apartments. At the end of my second year, they put me on a service truck with one of the smartest electricians that’s ever come through this hall. We’d get service calls. The dishwasher in the restaurant isn’t working, the block making tool at the block plant is not working; it was a wonderful education ’cause he taught me how to troubleshoot. Mr. Preston would figure it out, then we’d get the pieces, put it all together.

Then they transferred me to Crystal River, which was an industrial job. That’s where I met traveling electricians, out of other locals. Oddly enough, they were more accepting of me.

But the tendency those first two, three years was if I had an idea, it can’t be any good, it came from her. Then getting to Crystal River and working with John Rickerson — he was awesome. He called me Froggy — it was something about the way I would jump when we had something to do.

I found out when I topped or graduated that there were two or three of them that had a bet about who could make me quit. There were guys who’d just tell the grossest jokes or whatever. Then, it was a man’s world and if they want to talk that way, that’s between them and God or whoever.

Now directing something at me, not many of them had the guts to do that. I had one guy pinch my butt in an elevator at Crystal River. The next day when we piled in the elevator, I pinched him with a pair of side cutters. You should have heard him yowl. All of his buddies were laughing, uh-huh, we told you she was going to get you.

I hate to bring religion into it, but this primitive Baptist kind of guy [thought] women should definitely be at home cooking dinner barefoot and pregnant. They put this guy in charge of our crew. He had to have emergency surgery.

John, the very guy that he hassled daily, stood up at our safety meeting and said, this man’s going to be out of work for eight weeks. His wife doesn’t work. We took up a collection. Every week that man got a minimum of eight hundred dollars cash for his family. When he came back, he didn’t know what to say because he had treated a lot of people poorly. He even came around to me and said, I apologize for my attitude about you. I said, you need to thank John Rickerson. He doesn’t like you, but you’re a brother in the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and we try to take care of our own.

By the time I graduated — 1980, Mr. Hoover, when I came in, he jumped up, he hugged my neck. This man, he was rough on me when we worked together, and he said, I am so proud on you, you’ve made such a good name for us as the first female because you carry our ideals and you do good work and you’re smart. I’m like [sighs] at last. After four years of hard work I’ve been accepted.

M: In these early days, what was the public opinion of unions?

D: The only people that had a decent opinion about unions were members of unions or had family members that were union, and they understood what it was all about. People were horrified that I paid twenty dollars a month to belong — well, what do they do for ya? They guarantee my work conditions, my wages, my insurance, my legal rights. I think the state of the economy in this country now—part of the reason for it, they broke unions. They shipped our manufacturing to other countries, where they’re giving them wages that won’t even buy a bowl of rice. It’s horrifying. They’ve got children working in these places. The things that unions fixed in this country are going on over there.

The things they used to say — oh, they keep sorry people on the job and they protect them; getting those big wages. Auto workers caught a ration of stuff about that. That’s why cars are so expensive. Well, they’re not made by union workers anymore, and they’re more expensive than they ever were. So who’s getting the money?

It’s hard to compete when they’re paying twenty-two dollars an hour, and nonunion shops will generally not pay your average journeyman maybe ten, twelve dollars an hour, unless, they know he knows his business; and they might pay him fifteen.

I met my current husband on a job — he was also a union electrician. We went on a job in Connecticut. They put us on this cooling tower, and the superintendent’s window is looking at this thing. I’m like, okay, where’s the material? Oh, it’s not here yet. But you need to look busy.

I said, I’ve already heard about your headhunter. Contractors would send him to sneak around and see if you’re working. And I said, you’re out of your mind; we can’t do this very long. So Curt and I got busy. In two days, we had everything laid out and put up everything they had. And I looked down, and there’s that headhunter. I went down the stairs and I said, if I get fired for not doing anything, there will be repercussions, I promise. And boy, he took off, he ran. The next morning there was a stack of pipe out there.

I’m almost forty years into this. Instead of things getting better, they’re getting worse. We don’t have many union contractors because they don’t get the jobs. They can’t stay working here because we don’t have enough union jobs, so a huge majority of them travel to make that good wage, and they’ll be gone two, six months at a time, and the wives just get tired of doing it all alone.

My husband, Curtis — he’s in Minnesota right now working because there’s so little work here. I feel bad for him. Some of these men just can’t afford to live. They’re dealing with a wife and kids, with elderly parents that are dependent on them. They can’t just take a thousand dollars and travel, and wait for somebody to call them. They’ll take whatever they can get. They’ll paint, they’ll do something else besides the trade.

M: What do you expect for the future of the IBEW?

D: When I went through — a union journeyman/wireman’s ticket showed that you had the schooling, the theory; that you had 8-10,000 hours of on the job training. The International has gotten so fond of that money they get out of our dues that they wanted to expand that.

If a contractor has a friend and his son needs a job, they can put his son to work on their job. He doesn’t go through the apprenticeship; if they want to, they can pay him journeyman/wireman’s wages. And the International is getting a piece of his dues. There is some bitter resentment about that.

I hope the young ones coming up can keep it on track. It’s hard to get them to come to meetings. [sighs] I’m not going to spend my Friday night at the union hall. You know, young people. Old people, it’s a social gathering.

M: What was your most memorable moment?

D: For all of the wonderful things that happened, really it had to be graduation night. I was dressed up, which the guys didn’t get to see much; they all told me that I cleaned up pretty good, it was funny. And to have quite a few of the members come congratulate me — out of everything, that would have been the pinnacle.

I met wonderful people, I got to know a lot of their families, I learned a trade that will stay with me all of my life. It allowed me to travel. I went from being an only child to having three or four hundred brothers.

For the full transcript of this interview, go to: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/l/AA00039167/00001

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