Back in the ’80s, single mom and waitress Eileen Kennedy was huddled with her young daughter in a restaurant next door to her freezing cold apartment, trying to warm up from the chill, when she heard a woman talking about how much money she was making working in Manhattan’s Local 638 Steam Fitter Trade Union. Kennedy listened as the woman apprentice bragged about her comfortable hours, generous pay, benefits and how the union needed to hire more women and minorities.
Kennedy didn’t waste any time calling the president of the union directly, insisting she be hired. She was, and so began her life as a trailblazer.
Kennedy, who now lives in Saugerties, stands an impressive 5’10” with bright, piercing green eyes. Born and raised in Bay Ridge (with the accent to prove it) as one of five kids and the daughter of an engineer, from an early age Kennedy always preferred to operate a power tool rather than a sewing machine. That said, Kennedy recalled that she had a lot to learn going into steam-fitting and was thankful for the thorough union training. “Most people said that’s not a woman’s job,” recalled Kennedy, “But I had a daughter to raise and I needed those hours and that time off and that money … and so as dirty as I got, I made enough money to buy soap!”
Initially, Kennedy was not remarkably welcome on job site until she showed the boys what she was made of. Kennedy’s first job — one of the only women to work on the crew building the women’s prison at Riker’s Island — was a true test of her fortitude, patience and personal boundaries. Six-hundred men taunted her daily while the women prisoners, who she said could have “torn each other apart,” called for her.
“Periodically a woman prisoner would get loose and they would send out the dogs, who would find me,” Kennedy said. On her first day, the men on the job instructed her to go down into a dark tunnel with a flashlight and tin cans tied on a string. “Rats eyes were staring at me.” After completing the terrifying descent, Kennedy saw lights on the other side. It was the first of many cruel tricks designed to test her mettle and her spirit. “Every job you had to prove yourself,” said Kennedy. “Hard as they tried, I never cried in front of them,” said Kennedy, noting that the fact she was raised with two brothers in an Irish Catholic family served to toughen her up.
Since her co-workers drilled a hole in the wall of her shanty where she changed her clothes in the first week, Kennedy soon found coveralls to be a safer outfit. One day Kennedy was standing in her work shanty, when she spotted three “cat-sized” dead rats with their front paws tied together and suspended from the ceiling above. Kennedy also found chicken bones in the pockets of her hanging coveralls to help attract rats and mice. Another day she found her work boots bolted to the floor.
“Well, you learn how to get even, like climb the ladder and drop a hammer on someone’s face if they’re watching my [rear].” Kennedy said eventually her union peers began to treat her with respect, and woe be to the one who didn’t as they began to look on her like a little sister. “Sometimes I would wear lingerie under my coveralls just to remind myself that I am a woman.”
Her usual work entailed building or repairing air conditioning, heating and sprinkler systems. Her hours of 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. were ideal for a single mother, as were 12 paid holidays and the additional trade-skills education.