As Union 371’s first female member and founder of tools & tiaras, Judaline Cassidy is breaking barriers, blazing trails, and getting the job done in a male-dominated industry in a male-dominated industry.
The legal profession’s loss is the plumbing industry’s gain.
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Judaline Cassidy dreamed of becoming a lawyer. However, when her great-grandmother died and Cassidy couldn’t afford the university tuition, the trades — and the free education that came with them — beckoned.
“I had a choice of choosing plumbing or electric,” she said, “and in my mind, the way that I solved it, I said, ‘Plumbing, I can get wet; electrical I can get shocked.’ And that’s basically how I picked it.”
Cassidy said she soon fell in love with plumbing, with solving puzzles and knowing that her job protects the health of the nation. In 1995, Cassidy become the first female member to join Staten Island Plumbers Union 371. Last year, she started a nonprofit organization called Tools & Tiaras, Inc., that looks to draw girls to the mechanical, industrial, and technical trades.
Like anything worthwhile, it didn’t come easily.
In 1989, the newly married Cassidy and her husband moved to New York City. However, she lacked the proper documentation to work as a plumber in her new country, so she spent her first few years in the United States working as a babysitter and a nanny.
Women looking to join a male-dominated industry like the construction trades in the 1990s would have faced a significant amount of discrimination based on gender alone. It was even more difficult for a woman who happened to be a minority.
“And a minority with an accent,” Cassidy pointed out with a chuckle. While acknowledging it was tough going in the beginning, she said she reminds women who are considering a career in the trades that their greatest teacher will probably be a man.
“I became a great plumber because great men taught me, took me under their wing, and mentored me,” she said. “And it if wasn’t for a man, Brian Tortora, who spoke up on my behalf and said, ‘This woman is really good; we’ve got to get her into the union,’ I wouldn’t have been the first woman to get into the Staten Island local.”
Tortora recognized Cassidy’s talent when they worked on a job together before she became an apprentice. She told him how she had learned the trade in her home country, and he endeavored to teach her as much as he could. Her initial attempt to join the union was rejected, which didn’t sit well with him.
“I had a fit and I became an advocate, or mentor, for her and I spoke up for her,” he said. “I actually put myself out on the line, and I told them, ‘No, this girl’s the real deal. She’s a good worker, a talented plumber, she’s going to be an asset to our union in the future.’ So they finally listened and the rest is history.”
He said she has not let him down.
“No, she’s very good,” he said, adding that over the years Cassidy has gotten to know his family, including two children who are in the trades.
“I’m very proud of her as far as in the union, too,” Tortora said. “She’s on one of the boards in the union; she really stands up, speaks her mind, which she always did. She might’ve gotten that from me a little bit too because I never back down from anybody,” he said with a laugh.
The board to which Tortora referred is the union’s Examining Board, on which Cassidy serves as a part-time officer. She is also president of the Women’s Committee, the Croton Sisters of Plumbers Local 1 NYC (New York City’s three unions were consolidated into UA Local Union No. 1).
Cassidy is committed to bringing other women into the trades. Once her workday is through, she turns her attention to Tools and Tiaras. In fact, rather than commute two hours each way to her home in Pennsylvania as she did for 20 years, Cassidy now stays with a friend in New York during the week so that she can devote more time to her union duties and her nonprofit.
Once a month, Tools and Tiaras holds a workshop, led by a tradeswoman, that teaches skills including plumbing, carpentry, electrical, masonry, tiling, and sheet metal. This summer, the nonprofit will hold a three-week Construction Skills Camp in New York for girls ages 6 to 19.
“We try to make it just basic things to get them excited about the trades and to maybe think, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know I could do that,’” Cassidy said.
In addition to clinics such as those that Tools and Tiaras holds, Cassidy cites a need to recruit directly from high schools to show that plumbers come in all colors, shapes, and sizes —Cassidy is 5 feet tall, which has played a role in people’s first impressions of her.
“When you see construction workers on TV, the image is always a white dude, right?” she said. “And we have these young black males and Hispanic kids who could be plumbers but they don’t see images of themselves. I really didn’t realize how images of people are important until I experienced it myself.”
Cassidy created a “Rosie the Riveter” sticker with a young black woman that she distributed at a women’s conference two years ago, and the response was overwhelming.
“From nowhere, everybody was looking to find me to get the sticker,” she recalled, “and the younger female apprentices were crying, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is me.’ So you can’t see that you can be a plumber if there’s no representation of that.”
Although there are now more than 80 women in the union, Cassidy said she still often finds herself the only tradeswomen on the construction site.
“Every time you start a new job as a woman, it’s like your first day at school,” she said. “Like today I started a new job — and I’ve been in the business for twentysomething years — so when I get there it’s the same thing — a whole bunch of guys not talking to me.”
However, Cassidy pointed out, this typically happens with younger men who are not familiar with her work.
“They see the other guys coming in and saying, ‘Hi, Judy, I haven’t seen you in 15 years; how have you been?’ and then they say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ So it still happens, even me being in the business that long.”
That said, Cassidy finds younger workers today are far more accepting of working with female tradeswomen, and having them lead crews, than when she broke into the business.
“I think it’s changing; I think it’s going to change,” she said. “The more we keep putting the images out there that women are in these jobs, it’s going to help out a lot.”
Like many in the trades, Cassidy’s daughter, 26, has followed her into the industry. She is in the sheet metal union after a stint in college.
“I was like, ‘What’s the sense wasting this money when you can go and learn a trade and make money right away, earn a really good living and even get a college degree?’” Cassidy said. “Because a lot of unions pay — when I went they didn’t — but a lot of unions pay for apprentices to get college degrees.”
Through her groundbreaking work on the job, in her union, and the community, Cassidy has become a bit of a celebrity. Feminist media brand MAKERS profiled her in a video on its website, Megyn Kelly interviewed her for a “Today Show” segment called “She Made It,” and actress/writer/producer Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls organization did a Q&A with her. In December, women’s activist Gloria Steinem posted a tweet encouraging donations to Tools and Tiaras.
While appreciative of the support that has come from her newfound fame, Cassidy is quick to remind that she is, first and foremost, a plumber.
“I still like it every single day,” she said, “and I love being part of the union, because, for somebody like me from another country to come to this great country and be able to achieve the American dream — having a house, a car, good benefits and all of that — could only be possible in one country, and it’s this country.”