By: Trades & Union Staff
When Lissette Rossi graduated from high school, she was at a loss about what to do with her life. She stumbled upon an opportunity to work at the Port of Camden as a security guard and she got the job in 1999 thinking of it as a holding place until she figured out her next step.
She was so diligent about security that Customs and Immigration wanted to recruit her. That, and her friendly demeanor, brought her to the attention of the legendary Joe Balzano, CEO for the South Jersey Port Corporation, now deceased.
“I expressed to Joe that I wanted a chance to be a forklift operator,” says Rossi. “I watched the guys unloading ships and earning a lot more money and I wanted that opportunity too. But there were no women employed in those jobs at the time.”
Balzano thought it was time to introduce women into the shipyard workforce. But he knew he had to do it carefully, so he created a back-door strategy to introduce Rossi onto the team. He made her a supervisor in the maintenance department where she reported to Franco Mastrogiorgio, who she describes as “such a gentleman.”
But it was not the case with many of the men she worked with. “It was horrible,” says Rossi. “Men had trouble taking orders from a woman. It was mostly the older generation. I never had problems with men my age. Once, someone even put a dead rat in my truck. But I always remembered what Joe Balzano told me. ‘Listen kid, if they’re talking about you, you must be doing something right.’”
Rossi persevered, but in 2007 when the economy got bad, she was among 40 who were laid off. That’s when her uncle Joseph Fitzpatrick, a Local 401 iron worker in Philadelphia, suggested she consider a job with the union. “I remember that in third grade,” says Rossi, “I had to do a report on someone’s job and I wrote about my uncle. I thought it was so cool that he built bridges and high rise buildings.”
She had missed the application process in Philadelphia so her uncle encouraged her to apply to Camden Local 399. Her family was very supportive. “I played sports in high school and I’m very strong which surprises people because I’m only five foot four. And the shipyard was a great training ground for the construction business.
“I grew up in the Cramer Hill section of Camden,” says Rossi, “and I was the first girl to play ball for the Cramer Hill Boys Club and I was the first alter girl at my church. In high school I played basketball, field hockey and Lacrosse and I also lifted weights. My family always told me I could do whatever I wanted to do. So, in 2008, I applied and was accepted into the Iron Worker’s Local 399 apprenticeship program.”
Rossi became a certified welder and loves the work. “It’s a physically demanding job,” she says. “It’s not for every woman. Our tool belts alone can weigh from 60 to 80 pounds with tools.
“There was certainly a lot of resistance when I started. But I was prepared after the shipyard experience. I think men thought they were going to have to carry my weight, but when they realized how strong I am and see that I never miss a day of work, attitudes changed. I now have a lot of friends in the union.”
She credits Local 399 Business Agent Richard Sweeney for being supportive of women in the trades and providing great leadership to the organization.
“The benefit of being in the union,” says Rossi, “is I never have to be concerned that the men are earning more than I am. You are guaranteed you get the standing rate for the job.”
She is especially proud of her younger brother Michael who is now an apprentice for Local 399. “We worked on the new Sixers practice facility together and I made sure I taught him all of the safety rules. I told him ‘Mom will kill me if something happens to you.’”
Rossi loves her job and stays in shape by doing cross fit five times a week at Crossfit643. “It’s a macho world that I work in,” she says. “But I don’t get offended. I go to the job and blend right in. It’s all about getting the job done and the guys have my back. I couldn’t be in a better place.”