MASH is a New Kind of Labor Union

Milwaukee       It is impossible to be in Milwaukee for more than fifteen minutes and not hear about the surprising success of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team this season and their breakout star, known affectionately as the Greek Freak.  You figure?  It is also impossible not to spend time in a community and with an organization like Amani United and not hear about the new Bucks stadium and the $250 million, and possibly double that figure, in tax breaks and public support the hedge fund team owners received to build the stadium.  Hearing Amani members talk, it seemed to be a story of a community benefits agreement that provided few benefits for the community.

I have known Peter Rickman, the executive director of MASH, the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, for years, so I reached out for him to find out more about the agreement and how it worked, since MASH was at the heart of it.  Without question, their victories in this agreement were a masterstroke of political and organizational savvy.  Key to their ability to negotiate the agreement in labor’s interest was their ability to anticipate what the New York-based new owners would need in order to make a deal for the stadium.  Reading reports in the area newspapers it is clear that despite a hard right Republican governor at the time, the infamous labor union basher Scott Walker, and a Republican majority legislature, the alliance assembled to meet this challenge was able to leverage support from the Democratic minority in Madison, the state capital, and among party allies in the County and City government to back the deal.  Given the huge billion-dollar giveaway by Walker and his cronies to Foxconn to develop their plant in Wisconsin, labor probably realized that another giveaway was inevitable at some level, so took the lemon and swallowed the lemonade in supporting the giveaway.

In the realpolitik the community may not have been on the winning end initially, but MASH negotiated an excellent agreement for labor, winning living wages starting at $12 per hour for workers, union organizing rights, and, most importantly, a hiring hall that would process applications and assure that at least 50% of the workers came from enumerated zip codes, including Amani’s, where unemployed was significant.  The hiring hall could be a significant community benefit, but right now in building MASH as a different type of union, it’s already huge.  Wisconsin is now a right-to-work state so whether deliberately or indirectly borrowing a page from the great success of the Culinary workers union in Las Vegas, they negotiated first crack at incoming workers for referral and training similar to what exists in Nevada, allowing a high percentage of voluntary union enrollment from the point of employment.  MASH files LM’s with the US Department of Labor as a labor organization, so of course under established rules for hiring halls there can be no discrimination in hiring based on membership or nonmembership in a union, but if the old saying about business success is “location, location, location,” then for a union “access, access, access” to the workers is equivalent.

Importantly, the agreement MASH negotiated with the Bucks development operation covers not just the arena and the area that will be the site for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, but the entire development footprint of the former city-side brownfield making this a deal that will keep on giving in building a very different and potentially significant labor union, strongly supported and affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  During this dark period for union organizing in many quarters, this is a union worth watching.  Meeting with MASH, I was also convinced that it can also be an opportunity for an equally impressive labor-community alliance in the future, which might not justify the recently rejected Amazon-NYC level giveaway, but could balance out the concerns for the entire community’s benefit in the future.



Campaign Strategy and Tactics is Gangster

Amani United campaign planning charts

Milwaukee       The leadership and organizer training with Amani United in Milwaukee had gone very well for two days.  The general theme of these three days was identifying issues and how these issues can be distinguished and then be transformed into winning campaigns that build power for the organization.  We had made great progress in the second day and had gotten to the point in the dialectic process of the training between me and the leadership where we were examining the definitions and differences between tactics and strategy.

We were using a specific issue that the leaders had mentioned in the afternoon session as an example.  In order to flesh out this topic, the leaders had chosen a proposal by the Milwaukee city bus service to eliminate the #80 bus line.  Conversation was energetic and engaged.  Feelings were unanimous and deep that this was deadly to the neighborhood.  Stories abounded of the extra half-mile or more that residents would have to walk to be able to catch a bus to work, downtown, or grocery stores from Amani if the 80 was taken out of service.

We looked at the potential targets.  We diagrammed additional pressure points that we could potentially leverage to join with Amani United in order to impact the targets or that we would need to neutralize.  Then we got to the point of discussing tactics and strategy for the potential campaign.  We agreed that any tactic repeated too often lost its effectiveness.  We agreed that tactics needed to have proportionality and be appropriate to the target.  We agreed that strategy and tactical selection had to be adaptive enough to gauge the actions the organization took against the reaction of the targets and response of the public, and constantly evolve.

Earlier I had made my usual pro forma apology for the militaristic nature of some of the discussion and the terminology.  I made my usual joke that the alternative was often to use more sports metaphors, but goodness knows that would be inappropriate as well.  The organization’s president, Rice Bey, then blurted out that he “got” all of this now that we were talking about tactics and strategy, jumping up and saying, “this is all gangster!”  Without exactly saying so, a light seemed to go off for many of the other leaders in the room.

The old metaphors were gone.  The metaphors with real meaning, the ones that worked in looking at strategy and tactics were embedded “in the streets,” as several said.  We had suddenly jumped from the room of the religious social services center where we were meeting into lived experience of many of the leaders.  These weren’t episodes of “The Wire.”  We were part of the thrust and jab, cat-and-mouse of moving product with a hundred different strategies and tactics to win against the police and make a living.

Building the organization, finding issues, launching winning campaigns, and, in fact, winning and losing made sense suddenly within all of the leaders’ experiences.  As one leader then said, “Hey, Wade, I get it:  this is for real isn’t it?”

Yes, brothers and sisters, this is totally for real.  Winning matters and losing hurts.  Organizing is the difference.