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A union job gave her the bootstraps she needed

Tarita Ventura is a rarity, a female member of the sheet-metal workers union. Her job has rescued her from a life of need and debt.

June 14, 2012|Hector Tobar
  • Tarita Ventura, a second-year apprentice, works at the Southern California Sheet Metal Joint Apprenticeship Committee center. This photo will appear next week at a show called "A Day in the Life of a Worker."
Tarita Ventura, a second-year apprentice, works at the Southern California… (Amy Tierney / f8f11 Images )

Tarita Ventura is a lover.

She loves music, and sings in several genres: country, soul, rock, blues. It was the pursuit of a singing career that brought her to Los Angeles a decade ago from Texas.

Tarita loves making things with her hands. Her father was a construction man, back in her native Oklahoma, a place that still lives in her tongue as a noticeable drawl. When singing in L.A. didn't pay the bills, it was with her hands, swinging a hammer at construction sites, that Tarita earned the money that fed her four children.

Union work: In the June 15 Section A, the caption for a photo with a column about Tarita Ventura and how her union has given her well-paying work said she was employed as a sheet-mental apprentice. It should have said sheet-metal apprentice.

And finally, Tarita loves her union. The sheet-metal workers union is full of men, almost entirely. They're burly, boisterous guys who think of her, at age 43, as a kind of mom or wife at each construction site she works. But it's the union that's finally given her steady, well-paying work, and rescued her from the life of need and debt in which she'd been living.

"You can get a livable wage," Tarita told me. "Before, I wasn't totally in a hole — I just wasn't able to buy groceries. I guess that's a hole to most people."

Yeah, unions get a bad rap. Often, deservedly so. Tarita knows this. In Oklahoma, some people practically spit when they say the word.

"My father, he's a Republican, and he says unions are a bunch of crooks," Tarita said. "I tell him, 'You just go on believing that while you watch me pay my bills on time.'"

Once union jobs made a middle class in L.A. At the Firestone tire plant in South Gate, in the GM plant in Van Nuys, muscle power could pay for a mortgage and your kids' college education. These days, a lot of people blame unions for bloating the public debt. But let us not forget that good union jobs built suburb after suburb in L.A., until most of those jobs went overseas.

The advocates at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy believe in union jobs. And they've literally made Tarita one of the poster children for their campaign in support of policies that bring women, poor people and union members into public-works jobs.

On June 21, Tarita's portrait will be in a LAANE gallery show called "A Day in the Life of a Worker." The show also includes Jabari Jefferson, an electrician from South L.A., and Luis Jaimes, 26, a third generation Mexican American iron worker who poses in a bronze-colored helmet, the word "Los Angeles" proudly tattooed across his forearm.

Tarita, a second-year apprentice at Sheet Metal Local 105, is meant to look a bit like Rosie the Riveter. That would be appropriate, since her apprenticeship began with classes at the Rosie the Riveter High School in Long Beach.

But when I met Tarita at a café near her home in Rosemead, she told me a long, winding story that was only partly about her union. It's the tale of a woman so full of life, neither Texas nor California seem big enough to hold her abundant personality.

Her 34 years in Oklahoma and Texas included the occasional bout of homelessness as a child ("we called it camping"), lots of community theater, singing in clubs, and a broken marriage. Then, a performance in Dallas nightclub earned her the attention of a California talent agency.

"I was so country, so hick, I didn't even know how big that agency was," she told me.

In L.A., she got in a music video with the Pointer Sisters, did a bit of stand-up comedy too, and acted in a Mamet play in a community theater on Sunset. The highlight of her brief film career was as an extra you can spot, very fleetingly, sitting ringside behind Clint Eastwood in "Million Dollar Baby."

But all of that work, acting and singing, wasn't enough for a single mom with four kids.

"I couldn't make any money doing it," she told me. "That was so sad. I had to let it go."

Not long after she was on the set of "Million Dollar Baby," she was on a construction site, earning $10 an hour. She eventually got on with a non-union contractor. "I did everything. I installed windows, tile floors. I did framing. I even got to use a jackhammer."

But being a woman working alongside a brunch of brawny guys wasn't, and isn't, easy.

"You have to have a thick skin," she said. "I'm a pretty rank, pretty raunchy comic. That works out pretty well on a construction site." Once, a co-worker told her, "Nothing offends you, does it?" To which she replied with a smile, "No, are you trying?"

Even with a pay bump up to $14 an hour, she was struggling. Often, the kids relied on school meal programs. Then, a friend directed her to a program called Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles (WINTER).

Among other things, the WINTER instructors made her jog around the campus of the Rosie the Riveter High School in Long Beach.

After the 10 weeks were over, Tarita got her union apprenticeship.

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