During the COVID-19 pandemic, workers’ rights have returned to popular discourse because of mass reliance on frontline workers. As millions of those workers have been scraping by and fearing for their futures, the wealth gap has widened, yet workers are largely expected to go on as normal—show up to work and continue to create a profit for someone at the top, often with no hazard pay.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has been a COVID-19 hotspot, a union only several years old has taken bold action to unite people in their demands for better working standards and fair wages. Before the pandemic hit, the union won a major contract with the Bucks, which granted a $15 minimum wage by July.
Now, Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers, better known as MASH, is bringing people together to vote. On the morning of Saturday, October 24th, MASH held an early voting rally at the Fiserv Forum (the new Bucks arena) for service and hospitality workers. Workers themselves gave impassioned speeches before going as a group to vote early at MATC.
MASH president Peter Rickman started the rally with an announcement that one person who planned to make a speech was not able to make it because her car broke down on the way. Rickman cited the situation as an example of common obstacles the working class faces.
“I’m holding Melinda Harmon’s remarks here because Melinda’s car broke down. Has anyone ever had their car break down on a day that’s important to them?... I think that story’s a little too common. People struggling in a tough moment, wondering ‘How am I going to get my car fixed? How am I going to pay the rent next month? How am I going to keep that We Energies call from coming in? How am I going to keep food on the table?’... The powerful thing about the story of people like Melinda is she just keeps on going,” Rickman said. “And Melinda got involved in fighting to win a union right here, along with 1,000 other people. The working class of the service industry has started to transform what’s going on in this city, because people like Melinda and other folks you’re gonna hear from got together and said, ‘We work together, so we’re gonna fight together’... Melinda helped create an industry-leading union contract at this place right here, to raise the wage not only to $15 immediately, but on a path to increase wages over two-thirds what they were before the union came in… right over there where the Bradley Center used to be.” (Rickman referred to what is now the Fiserv Forum.)
Speakers echoed the sentiment of these remarks. Wanda Lavender, who is a mother of six children and has worked at Popeyes for four years, stated that even as a manager at Popeyes, she still only makes $12 an hour. “Like many Black workers who are stuck in low-paying jobs, I kept going to work through this pandemic. I can’t work my job from the safety of my home, and I can’t afford to take off,” she began.
“People come in and don’t want to wear face masks so we risk getting exposed to a deadly virus... A few times, I’ve been scared that I have COVID-19. Even though I was feeling sick, coughing my lungs out, my job told me to come in. They said, ‘If you take off time because you are sick, you won’t have a job to come back to.’ No one should be forced to risk their health and safety for a paycheck you can hardly survive on.”
Lavender credited “workers in the streets making demands and changing public opinion” for politicians supporting the $15 minimum wage, and referenced Joe Biden as one of them.
Julia Derby, a recent graduate of UWM, was going to school full time and working two jobs when the pandemic hit. She graduated during the pandemic and noted that she has no plan for paying back her student loans. “I’m too preoccupied with how I’m going to pay the rent,” she said.
Derby slammed President Trump for “granting tax breaks to corporations and billionaires while refusing to raise wages or guarantee income replacement when people can’t work.” She also criticized the GOP’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, saying they have “massively mishandled and politicized COVID instead of prioritizing the health, safety and wellbeing of frontline and unemployed workers.” She continued, “We see their failures and we see a different future.”
Anthony Steward, former cook at the Fiserv Forum, made remarks about the history of the struggle for labor rights in Milwaukee specifically, saying that it was “once known as the best place in America for Black folks to raise a family.” Steward said that was so because of workers uniting “in our workplaces, and at the ballot box to elect policy-makers who would help rewrite the rules and enable us to win unions that balanced the power between workers and bosses.”
Bringing it back to the present, he said, “Political action also took it away. As soon as we won, the forces against us—billionaires and the boss class, Wall Street and the 1%—started trying to turn back our progress.” Our world now “looks a lot like the world before workers fought to change it,” he said, going on to emphasize the need for a renewed workers’ movement.
Justin Otto, who worked at The Pabst Theatre until March when live music events were all cancelled, referenced his conversations with service workers in Milwaukee: “Every single person I’ve talked to who’s back at work has had to deal with extra concerns, extra precautions, and extra work on top of their normal job, but they’re not getting any extra pay.” He went on to say that hearing these things are “really upsetting… but it’s not surprising.”
“It’s exactly what we can expect when decisions are made without us,” Otto said. “It’s exactly what we can expect when elected officials represent our bosses, corporations and themselves, instead of us. It’s exactly what we can expect until we elect different leaders and then demand that they listen to us.”
The final speaker was Troy Brewer, a father of three and former employee of the Fiserv Forum, Miller Park, and Jose’s Blue Sombreros. “I worked three jobs, not by choice but out of necessity,” Brewer said.
“What I have is hope and optimism that we, the people, meaning all the working people, can get through this thing together. As these jobs are coming back we know we can’t go back to the way things were. Normal doesn’t cut it for us. Normal was over 400 years of oppression and my people are still struggling. Normal was people having to work three jobs out of necessity. We can’t go back to normal. We have to build something new.” Brewer laid out his own vision for the future, where “Black lives matter… the educational system (is) revamped so that minorities in public schools get the same education and opportunities as private and suburban school children get” and “billionaire corporations pay their fair share.”
“Now, let’s march over to the MATC and vote together for Biden/Harris, and vote for that brighter future,” Brewer said.
Although speakers seldom referenced the Democratic Party as who would get their vote, MASH is openly supportive of the Biden/Harris ticket. Lindsay Adams, Lead Organizer at MASH, said that in terms of workers’ rights, another Trump administration will mean “reacting and protecting,” instead of moving forward.
“One example might be the National Labor Relations Board, which is like the court system for unionization and union-related complaints and decisions. They oversee union elections, contract compliance, grievances, etc. Usually it’s a bipartisan body, where you would have republicans and democrats. And there are typically five people who serve on the National Labor Relations Board. Well since Trump has been in office, he’s only put three people in, not five, and all of them have been republican.”
“In general, there’s this mismatch that you see as an extreme during the pandemic where on the one hand, we have all these people who are out of work and need work, and on the other hand we have all of these things that need doing, that are not being done. So something like the Green New Deal, where we have good union jobs with high wages and benefits and people trained to do the things like transition to a green economy. A Green New Deal is something that we would be pushing for and we would definitely not be seeing under Trump. There are plenty of Public Works projects that are needed and there are plenty of workers out there who need good quality, family supporting jobs. The thing is that we need a government that can match those two things together,” Adams said.
When asked for an official stance from MASH on the election, Adams said, “People are suffering and so is the climate. And so we do have the opportunity with someone who has publicly supported a Green New Deal, a public option in health care, unionization protections for workers, and a $15 minimum wage. These are already public commitments that Joe Biden has made, and so it is our position that we are going to be able to work with administrations that publicly support the things we care about to move the working class agenda forward. Whereas we know already that will be an impossibility with Trump. It’s damage control with him.”
MASH represents all of the workers at the Fiserv Forum. Adams said originally when they were going to build the arena, the owners wanted tax subsidies (public money) to do this, but several community groups asked for agreements on what these tax subsidies will generate for the city of Milwaukee, and particularly for working class people and people of color.
“Out of that came a Community Benefits Agreement, where in exchange for these tax subsidies, the arena had to hire at least 50 percent of their work force from zip codes with the highest unemployment rates in Milwaukee, with MASH enforcing that requirement. They had to maintain neutrality if there was a union drive, so we had work site access on the ground every day to workers to begin discussions around unionizing and also a path beyond $15 an hour. These were parts of the Community Benefits Agreement. So workers opted to unionize, that’s over 1000 employees at the arena, and bargain their first contract which was finally ratified and set to go into place the week that COVID hit, when the NBA season was cancelled and the arena as well as others across the country were shut down. So our members are now temporarily but long-term unemployed, since March.”
Having a union helped with their unemployment situation, according to Adams. “Everything from making sure that members had the appropriate unemployment information so that they could file very quickly, or if there were errors on the side of the employer, making sure that those were corrected so that people could get their unemployment benefits as soon as possible, to when they started having events without fans but still needed staff, making sure that those people who were hired were based on the agreements in the contract based on seniority and that they were paid under what should be their wages in the contract,” Adams said.
MASH made a reservation for the group to vote together at MATC ahead of time.
Photo Credits to MASH
About the Author:
My name is Maddy. I am a journalist, writer, and thinker based in Colorado where I work as a stringer for a small-town newspaper and have some odd jobs on the side. I am a member of the Democratic Socialist of America and am interested in bringing a lens of intersectionality to journalism and "pushing the envelope" to make people think critically about social issues. I love animals, music, food, creative writing, and the outdoors. She/her.