Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Milwaukee Becoming More Unionized

Unions scoring notable victories, not in manufacturing but in the service industry.

By - Apr 24th, 2024 11:33 am
The signs from this protest read, "Fiserv Forum Bucks Works." Photo taken August 26th, 2018 by Jeramey Jannene.

The signs from this protest read, “Fiserv Forum Bucks Works.” Photo taken August 26th, 2018 by Jeramey Jannene.

Unions are growing their numbers in Wisconsin and its biggest city. The number of union workers in the state increased by 9% last year.

Last month the major electric power utilities in Wisconsin promised to use union labor for the work, under an agreement with construction unions. And last year the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH) negotiated an agreement with Levy Restaurants, the concession contractor for Fiserv Forum, that covers cooks, cashiers, servers, bartenders and other hospitality workers. A second contract covers guards, janitors and events staff employed by the Milwaukee Bucks, and raises wages by 13% to 22% initially, with increases in future years exceeding 25%.

Researchers at the UW-Madison High Road Strategy Center have pointed to the Fiserv Forum contract as a template for future labor agreements with service sector employers. “For too long, employers and policymakers have accepted that the service sector will simply produce bad jobs with high turnover rates,” a new report by the group noted. “There is an alternative: a community strategy to raise the quality of these jobs that is driven by workers and their unions.”

Of course, Fiserv Forum is not your usual service business. It has been heavily subsidized by taxpayers: when all local, state and federal subsidies are included the total subsidy is in the neighborhood of $900 million, as Urban Milwaukee has estimated.

The High Road Strategy essentially acknowledged this in 2022 (back when the group was called the Center on Wisconsin Strategy or COWS, a much more Wisconsin name) with a report arguing the proposal for a subsidized soccer stadium in Milwaukee should require a pro-union Community Benefits Agreement like the one for Fiserv Forum. “Massive public investments in sports stadiums bring little to their communities without binding commitments to true community benefits,” the report warned.

For that matter, the state’s utilities are publicly regulated monopolies who can always pass the costs of higher wage union workers on to their ratepayers. A naysayer might argue that all these union agreements are actually paid for by taxpayers and rate payers, and are signed by companies that can afford to spend freely to maintain good will in the community, as We Energies does.

But as Peter Rickman, the president of MASH noted to Urban Milwaukee, the group has gone on to sign contracts with the event venue Gather at the Deer District and with the Pabst Theater Group. Rickman added that many downtown area businesses benefit from publicly funded assets like the convention center, Summerfest and ethnic festivals and the Milwaukee Streetcar. To that you could add the taxpayer supported UWM Panther Arena, Miller High Life Theater, Marcus Performing Arts Center and Milwaukee Art Museum. Not to mention Tax Incremental Financing districts that help subsidize private developers.

“Look at the current and planned route of the streetcar and plot it out with downtown hotel locations,” Rickman notes. The hotels clearly benefit from the government subsidized streetcar, and they are also classic examples of low-wage service industry employers.

As a 2023 study of service jobs in Milwaukee by several progressive groups found, it’s now normal in Milwaukee to hold jobs that don’t pay a living wage or offer health insurance. Of about 243,000 jobs in the city of Milwaukee, about 100,000 or 41% are bad jobs that pay less than $15 an hour, often don’t provide health coverage (47% of these workers don’t get health insurance) and are frequently not full-time positions (the average work week for these 100,000 workers is 34 hours).These kind of jobs are held by a wide swath of city residents, including 31% of white workers, 51% of Black workers and 56% of Hispanic workers in the city.

Three occupations account for 20,000 of those jobs: food service workers, janitors and security guards. And these are the kind of jobs the agreement with Fiserv Forum covers.

Back in 1979, the study found, 40% of Milwaukee jobs were in manufacturing, which typically paid middle-class wages. By 2019 that had dropped to just 12% of jobs.

Thus, while the recent union victory at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee offers hope that other auto plants in the south might eventually get unionized, the reality is that most of the growth in American jobs and in cities like Milwaukee is in the service industry. Any effort to address the wealth gap in Wisconsin and the U.S. must address the low wages and minimal benefits offered by service sector businesses.

In the case of Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee Bucks agreed to negotiate in good faith with labor unions and to pay beyond-minimum wages as part of the effort to win Democratic votes for the new arena-funding package. But the team then dragged its feet and it took years of work by MASH, with pickets at Bucks games and at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee before the contacts were fully negotiated.

In short, pressure by the union did make a difference and helped lead the way to later victories by MASH with the Pabst Theater Group and Gather.

Nor was this the only union group scoring such victories. Last year, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494 finally succeeded, after years of work, in unionizing the 600 employees working at the 20 cafes owned by Colectivo Coffee.

And the Service Employees International Union has successfully unionized thousands of workers at some 150 Starbucks Cafes in the nation, including two in metro Milwaukee and seven all told in Wisconsin.

And back in 2021 the Milwaukee Art Museum agreed to a union contract for its employees, working with the International Brotherhood of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

These efforts are beginning to change the picture in Wisconsin, where the percent of unionized workers had been plummeting for decades. Once one of the leading states in the percent of unionized workers, Wisconsin has trailed the nation over the last decade of so. But last year the estimated number of union members in this state increased from roughly 187,000 in 2022 to about 204,000 last year, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows. That’s a 9% increase in unionized workers.

As impressive as that sounds, it still leaves the percent of all workers unionized at just 7.4%, up from 7.1% in 2022. Still, that’s much better than the national rate which actually fell last year, to 10%, dropping slightly from 10.1 percent of workers in 2022, BLS data shows. (But because of growth in the workforce the number of unionized workers nationally actually increased slightly from 14.3 million in 2022 to 14.4 million in 2023.)

Those flat numbers, however, obscure the change in Wisconsin and nationally: the increasing emphasis on unionizing service sector workers. A Bloomberg Law analysis of federal data found the Service Employees International Union won 386 elections that added nearly 20,000 workers to their membership in 2022—a more than four-fold increase from 89 election wins that added 5,827 workers in 2021.

These kind of union campaigns are becoming a key way to reduce America’s wealth gap.

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Categories: Business, Murphy's Law

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