Maybe there’s something about the name Norma that facilitates flying in the face of convention. We had the film Norma Rae based on Crystal Lee Sutton’s battles organizing workers in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina in 1979, back when working-class women simply didn’t do that kind of thing. The Twin Cities own Norma C. Miller, may never have a movie made about her, but from 1997 until her recent retirement she certainly went where few women, notably Black women, had gone before in her career as a construction worker.
Yes, this Norma is a tool-belt wearing, union-card holding, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, a day’s wages for a day’s labor construction worker. She is a member in proverbially good standing of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades, and had she not got hurt, Miller would still be on the job.
She specialized in industrial, residential and commercial sites at institutions and companies such as the City of Minneapolis, Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and Swanson & Youngsdale, Inc. painting and getting rid of graffiti.
“Years ago, I always wanted to be in construction.” She got the idea while working as a medical assistant. “There was a lady, our children were in the same daycare. I would see her dropping her sons off. She was clean in the morning, when she went to work. But then, when she came back, she was always full of dust, ’cause she had been working.
“I found out she was in construction,” Miller continued. “I always admired her for going off to work in construction as a carpenter. She was a sister. I’d never seen a lady in construction before.”
Miller asked how she would go about doing it herself and was referred to the CETA program but missed out because the training had been relocated to Detroit. “I was married at the time, had two small children and couldn’t go [to Detroit]. So, eventually I returned to New York — which is where I’m from — and got into it there. I [did] my apprenticeship and came back here, contacted the union, and I’ve been in the union ever since.”
It’s a safe bet there were other women and girls who, in turn, had their first such experience watching Norma Miller show up to work in white coveralls, thinking that, indeed, she cut an inspirational figure as a woman of color doing so-called “man’s work.” At MAC, Miller handled, among her responsibilities, roadway and runway striping, taxi ways, apron markings and, of course, walls, ceilings and doors.
One of her favorite tasks at the City was the chemical removal of graffiti. It gave her an opportunity to put her thinking cap on in order to solve a tricky problem.
“A little old lady was bothered by her home [being defaced], but the siding on the house was [such that] you couldn’t remove the paint without removing the material on the building, itself.” Miller pondered the dilemma, then went back to the shop and found a seldom-used solvent that would get the job done without making more work. “I was glad. She was happy. It worked out.”
There is, it goes without saying, a downside. Sexual harassment is going to come with the territory when a woman is in a blue collar workplace. It is something Miller plainly identifies as treatment females don’t have to tolerate.
“What do you do when somebody says something out the way to you? I get questions about that when I do speaking engagements. How do you protect yourself when you’re working with men?”
She flatly states, “You just have to back them up off you. Sometimes you may have to take it to the next level, to your relief person. If necessary, you contact the contractor. After that, if nothing happens, take it to the real next level — sue them.”
In July of 2014 she was injured in, of all things, an entirely non-work-related mishap. “I was walking my dog and someone else’s dog got loose.” Trying to keep a grip on Fido, she fell, sustaining a compound fracture to her back.
“So [it was impossible to] do manual labor anymore.” She still got nominal compensation through the union, but naturally it was nothing like the recompense to which she would’ve otherwise been entitled. And, at 62, she has her pension, plus whatever work she picks up simply because she’s not interested in sitting around holding down her furniture.
For instance, she was an assistant at the Orpheum Theater when the Isley Brothers hit town in October and, a week later, at the State when Thing Your Man Won’t Do came through, helping with the concession where patrons purchase souvenir photo portraits.
“That’s what you do in retirement, run around doing all kinds of things you now have time for. I love it.” That includes tracking down and catching up with far-flung family members and tracing her genealogy, which she intends to document in a book at some point.
She’d like to see others follow in her footsteps since, sure enough, Black women can only benefit by seeing the image of their capabilities expand, making a rewarding living at the same time. “It really is a great job,” says Miller.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.