(This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of the TWU Express magazine)
Women in Nontraditional Workplace Roles: Celeste Kirkland, Local 100
In honor of Women’s History Month, the TWU Express is launching a new series, “Women in Nontraditional Workplace Roles,” where we interview TWU members who are women performing jobs traditionally done by men. Each issue will feature a Q&A with a member, starting with Celeste Kirkland, Vice Chair of Local 100 Maintenance of Way Division, Power Division which maintains the distribution of power throughout the New York City subways, including the Third Rail.
Q: Can you give us an overall view of the job you perform?
A: I am a Power Cable Maintainer in the Maintenance of Way division at NYC Transit. We are responsible for maintaining, installing, inspecting, testing, and repairing power feeder cables and communication systems both aerial and underground between generating plants, substations, circuit breaker houses, including lead and asbestos containing materials in manholes and cableways working in confined spaces on and off tracks.
Q: What made you decide to go into this craft?
A: As a young girl, I always wanted to be a camera woman. I went to school to get an electronic background so that I would be taken seriously, as I didn’t see many examples that looked like me. I landed my first job with Panasonic as technical support, then Bellsouth as a Telecommunication Specialist which prepared me for an electrical position within New York City transit.
Q: Are there any huge obstacles you’ve overcome that you’d like to share?
A: Being the first female within the Power Cable section and being the first female union officer currently Power Division Vice Chairwoman within the Maintenance of Way division.
I didn’t realize that I was doing anything special by taking a position within a male dominated field. I was made to feel different by managers that didn’t want to include me in the work and workers who didn’t want to sit in the same work truck. There was so much to prove. Sisters I met at The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) summer school for union women sisters who supported me with knowledge and positive affirmations. I realized that it was not my job to prove anything, only to work hard, learn my trade while being myself. I gained support from some of the brothers who witnessed many actions taken against me. I am a sister in the brotherhood and love the relationships I have built with my brothers, my support of them and them of me knowing I have their best interest. Now I have a whole new group of young workers, including more females that I need to share what being in this strong union – TWU – is all about and how working together will only make us stronger.
Q: Do you have any advice for young women wanting to go into your craft?
A: Plenty… Learn your craft. Unfortunately, even as much has changed for women in nontraditional work, there is still more that remains the same. We are still being targeted, still facing work discrimination issues and sexual harassment. We have to walk differently, be careful to learn the signs that might help avoid certain situations. Be sure to build a support group inside and outside of your work. Consult your union rep. I have many sisters I have worked with because they were referred to me by their male union representatives. There is support in the brotherhood, so don’t stop if the first person you contact doesn’t respond the way you want or need.
Q: What do you do for fun outside of work?
A: I come from a huge family of strong women. My grandmother had nine daughters and one son. I love culture. I grew up being introduced to travel both domestic and international, which broadened my horizons and continues to give me growth and new perspectives. Spending time with family and traveling together gives me so much joy. My mother’s strength pushed me to speak my truth, be accountable while still building bonds with a giving spirit.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: As a Nation, we’ve experienced civil unrest and the unbelievable tragedy of this pandemic which cannot dim the power of love which connects us. I was so proud to learn of the many women Presidents, Vice Presidents and even more titles of elected women at the last TWU convention. Let’s keep supporting each other and breaking those glass ceilings!