by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
March 27, 2024

When the new owners of the Milwaukee Bucks got help from state taxpayers to build a new basketball arena nearly a decade ago, community activists pushed for a deal that would do more for the people who would one day work there. Not the NBA stars, but the people selling refreshments, mopping the floors, providing security and fulfilling a host of other necessary tasks.

That agreement has helped foster a new trajectory for service workers, according to a new report released Wednesday — turning their low-wage and insecure work into jobs with the promise of longer term, family-sustaining careers.

It also offers a model for other city development projects besides the Bucks arena and the surrounding hospitality and entertainment district that was part of that project, the report suggests.

“From Community Benefits, to Collective Bargaining, and Back” was written by researchers Pablo Aquiles-Sanchez and Laura Dresser of the High Road Strategy Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The center describes itself as a “think-and-do tank” promoting solutions to social problems that focus on shared growth and opportunity, environmental sustainability and resilient democratic institutions as “necessary and achievable complements in human development.”

Laura Dresser, courtesy University of Wisconsin

The community benefits agreement that the Bucks owners signed when the Fiserv Forum was built with $250 million in state aid and the Deer District entertainment neighborhood was developed included provisions allowing arena workers to freely unionize. Ensuring those labor rights is central to the story of how those workers’ jobs are changing, Dresser, the High Road Strategy Center’s associate director, said in an interview.

“The service workers in the Deer District have a union, and that has changed their jobs — and it is a sustainable way to change their jobs,” Dresser said.

“We tend to believe, and it’s kind of held, that service work is helplessly low-quality. And it is equally held that unions can’t solve the problems of service work,” she added. The report argues that the results in the Deer District offer a contrary case study.

The report is a joint product of the High Road Center and the union representing Deer District and Fiserv Forum workers, the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH). It is also part of a group of larger projects carried out with Kids Forward, a Madison-based, anti-racist policy nonprofit that advocates for the well-being of Wisconsin children and families.

Guaranteeing employer neutrality on unions

The 2016 community benefits agreement went beyond local and union hiring provisions for construction of the Fiserv Forum by guaranteeing employer neutrality if the service and hospitality workers hired after construction was finished wanted union representation.

“That’s a way companies anywhere could work but it’s very rare for them to agree to unionization on those terms,” Dresser said. But it also wasn’t simply a matter of employer benevolence, she noted.

“I think it’s important to see that the labor neutrality [by the employer] was … a concession to the community organizing around the community benefits agreement,” Dresser said. “This was an employer willing to do that. But [it was] a negotiated position — there was pressure to say, ‘These are the terms.’”

The Fiserv Forum arena in Milwaukee. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

When the arena opened in 2019, MASH formed to represent the workers there and in the Deer District, operated by a development group affiliated with the Bucks. The union’s first contract, covering about 1,000 employees, included wage increases, cost-of-living adjustments and other improvements.

The union’s 2023 labor agreement with the arena’s concession contractor, Levy Restaurants, covers cooks, cashiers, servers, bartenders and other hospitality workers. A second contract covers guards, janitors and events staff employed by the Bucks. According to the report it raises wages by 13% to 22% initially, with increases in future years exceeding 25%.

The agreement also includes giving the union a larger role in how workers are hired. It’s a union role similar to how construction workers and some dock workers’ unions operate, said Peter Rickman, president of MASH — a “hiring hall” that helps link applicants to employers, and now as a “workforce intermediary.”.

The new contract establishes a union-based labor and workforce coordinator whose role is to “navigate employer demand and worker interest in better schedules,” the report says.

“The union will be able to mobilize workers for available shifts, analyze and plan for workforce challenges, and implement new solutions to scheduling issues,” according to the report. “This approach creates more steady employment and reduces worksite turnover to address perpetual problems within the service industry. This work puts MASH at the center of solving the employer’s need for workers in ways that improve jobs for members.”

A new path for working class prosperity

Rickman said the vision is to turn service and hospitality work into the kind of sustainable employment that union manufacturing jobs once offered in cities like Milwaukee, helping to build a stable middle class, including in the Black community.

As those jobs have fled, service and hospitality jobs have taken their place, but historically without the comparable security, stability and compensation. Those jobs are “at the heart of the racialized inequality” that runs through the city, Rickman said.

Union steward Lauren Stevens and Chief Steward Troy Brewer confer on Deeri District job applicants to determine recommendation for the hiring hall operated by the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH). (Photo courtesy of MASH)

Today, he estimates there are 55,000 hospitality jobs in Milwaukee at restaurants, hotels and other venues down to neighborhood mom-and-pop coffee shops. “We won’t truly build a Milwaukee for all of us until we turn the jobs that 1 in 5 Milwaukee workers have into family-supporting, good union jobs,” Rickman said.

Rickman said the report is a way to address city, county and state policymakers as new development projects are being eyed around the Deer District and in nearby Milwaukee neighborhoods. Community benefit agreements, he suggested, should be part of the process as the city considers zoning and other actions while development plans go through the approval process.

“I think the report is notable for analyzing and outlining a workable model that’s tangible, that’s real, that has proven impacts for how to transform hospitality work,” Rickman said. “It’s saying to [officials] there’s a working model here, and it’s on you to ensure that it continues to expand in scale.” 

Ald. Robert Bauman, whose district includes Milwaukee’s Downtown, said he wants to see the model spread through more development in his district.

Milwaukee Ald. Robert Bauman

A 2019 resolution that Bauman drafted and the city council passed says that property owners and developers in the greater downtown area employing service workers “should adopt community benefit agreements,” Bauman said.

Wisconsin law passed during the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker prevents the city from making such an agreement a condition for zoning approval, he noted. “But [it’s] something that presumably council members would take into consideration, as they consider voting on a zoning change.”

As new development generates more wealth in the district, “a lot of that wealth is being generated on the backs of service sector workers, who oftentimes can’t afford to live downtown,” Bauman said.

By asking developers to adopt a benefits agreement, “we can make sure that they’re paid living wages, with fair benefits, and opportunities to potentially unionize down the road and have greater control over the terms and conditions of their work and scheduling and issues of that sort,” he added. “I think [it] improves their quality of life and makes them feel part of the greater community.”

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