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Heather’s journey: From Purdy to punking iron to foreperson

SEATTLE (May 18, 2016) — The story of Heather Kurtenbach’s journey from Purdy Women’s Correctional Facility in Gig Harbor into her new family — the Ironworkers union — is an inspiration.

It made her the hit of the recent 2016 Women Build Nations conference in Chicago, which featured more than 1,500 tradeswomen from all over the world. And now, it has earned her an invitation to the White House.

Kurtenbach is a 15-year Journey Level Ironworker working as a General Foreperson on the 520 Bridge project in Seattle. Her story of addiction to methamphetamine, her arrest and imprisonment, and finding a new lease on life through an Ironworkers program informally known as “Handcuffs to Hardhats” is told in this video screened at the conference:


“I think a lot of it boils down to your self-esteem and self-worth,” Heather says. “You have got to believe that you’re worth it and you’re better than that way of life that you’ve chosen in the past.”

Her inspiring story has gotten the attention of the Obama administration, and this week Heather was invited to attend the United State of Women summit at the White House next month.

newgent-leeLee Newgent, an Ironworker who oversaw Heather’s apprenticeship, is now Executive Director of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO. He says Heather’s success story is part of a concerted effort in Washington state to recruit and retain women in the construction trades.

“Washington state is a leader in the inclusion of women into our construction workforce,” Newgent said. “The average percentage of women working on Project Labor Agreements in our state is 8 percent, which is more than five times higher than the national average of about 1.5 percent. We are very proud of that and we’ll continue to work on improving those numbers.”

Heather says she’s owes much to her Ironworkers union.

“The brotherhood and sisterhood of the Union is amazing, it’s just amazing,” she says in the video clip from her time as an apprentice Ironworker. “I don’t really have a close family of my own, so I’ve kind of adopted this union — and the people in it — as my family. And it’s a great feeling.”

legend-purdy-visit_frontALSO at The Stand — Mass employment, not mass incarceration (by WSLC President Jeff Johnson) — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has called for labor to take on the fight for criminal justice reform: a reform that calls for “mass employment, not mass incarceration.” I joined leaders from the AFL-CIO, international unions, Free America, and R&B sensation John Legend for a tour of the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Purdy…. When he sang “All of Me” and invited the women to sing along, there was not a dry eye in the house. (Watch the video!)

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!