She once lived in Section 8 housing working minimum wage jobs with no opportunity for advancement—all with her eight children living under her roof. Joining the NYC Carpenters Union changed all of that. Denise Echevarria, a 15- year member of the union, is now a certified shop steward, a delegate for Local 157, the vice president of the women’s committee, and a homeowner. Her story is the quintessential example of how one person can carve out a pathway to the middle class by joining the union.
How did you get into carpentry and get your start in the union?
As a child, I was always handy and always liked building things, but I honestly never knew that women could be in the trades. I was 38 years old with eight children living in Section 8 housing, when one day my husband came home with a flyer for a program called Construction Skills. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity. They told me I would have benefits, a 401k, job stability, and I could start at $20 an hour. At that time, that was a lot of money for me. I’d never had job stability or my own health insurance. I was on Medicaid. I wanted to be a role model for my children. I wanted to break the cycle.
What was Construction Skills like?
It was a very rough program. We went to the park every morning. We carried park benches, ran, did pushups, pullups, went through an obstacle course – it was very vigorous. There were quite a few women but mostly men, but I don’t think a lot of women knew how physical it would be. A lot of women dropped out one by one, but I knew I couldn’t give up. This was it for me. I was tired of not having enough in my home and not being able to afford the little luxuries for my children, so if they were willing to take a chance on me, I was willing to take a chance and do this because the rewards were just worth it for me. I didn’t care that I went home dirty and so tired, sometimes I couldn’t lift my arms. I knew this is something I had to do.
How did it feel to finally get into the NYC Carpenters Union?
I was so excited to get into the union! I knew what unions meant for someone like me. For the program, we had to select three different trades that we’d like to join, and being a carpenter was my first choice. It also would’ve been my second and third choice! I saw the commercial buildings that were going up and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be part of building the city and be able to come back and look at it and have pride in my work.
How has the union changed your life?
It changed everything. I was 40 years old when I got in. At 40, you don’t think you’re going to be able to start a career or achieve something like that. Now, I’m able to see the pride in my children’s faces. They are very proud of me and I eventually did get out of the projects. I own a home now. I’m able to afford things I never thought I could. I was able to help a few of my children pay for college and help a few of my adult daughters get their own homes. I’m living the American dream.
What is your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
The World Trade Center. I did so many things on that project: Floating floors, concrete, finish work, a little sheet rock. It was a sense of pride. I was working in the museum when they brought in the memorabilia and a fire truck that was on the scene that day with a crane. The silence and emotion from our union trades was an unforgettable moment.
Do you have any advice for women looking to get into the trades?
It’s a wonderful experience, but perseverance and hard work is key. Never give up. You must be in it to win it. Learn your trade, don’t limit yourself, and know that you, too, can do this. I’d also like to say that I love my union with all my heart. I’ve never had a sense of belonging like this before. I’m just a girl from the Bronx. I never thought that I’d be able to go this far, so thank you. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.