Tag Archives: Milwaukee

Budgets, Bullets, and Buses

Brother Rice Bey President, Amani United

Milwaukee       It wasn’t going to last long on a busy day, so I went with the Amani United leaders as they went downtown to testify to the county commissioners in solidarity with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) bus drivers who had supported them in their successful effort to stop the elimination or rerouting of the major bus line through the neighborhood.  It was a strange and confusing experience.

It was impossible to ignore some of the messages the commissioners were sending to the citizens.  They met in the courthouse complex abutting the jail.  Security was intense of course as is common in all courthouses now where tempers and tragedy run hot and hard.  The hearing room hardly held fifty people, which was strange for a county with almost one-million residents.  The leaders and I said in an anteroom outside the hearing where a speaker piped in the testimony and commissioner’s bodyless comments through their microphones.

It took me a bit to get a handle on the issues before the body.  I knew there were huge tensions between the union, the county, and the bus management.  The last contract came after a strike, and they were now working on an expired agreement with another strike looming.  A wagon load of issues separated the parties.  A retired driver with thirty years in before leaving a couple of years ago told me in the lobby about how much revenue the buses lost because the fare machines improperly recorded the take.  It must have been millions from his description, and it was certainly common knowledge to the drivers, so it must have been so to management as well.

Richard Diaz Amani United

But the issue at hand was security on the buses.  The sheriff’s office seemed to want deputies to ride on the buses, like the random air marshals that were on airplanes, until many were recently pulled by Trump to do border control work.  The head of the union in a fiery speech, threatening a strike again, seemed to want to allow the drivers to be armed and seemed to argue security for drivers and passengers was a key concern.  None of this was likely to increase ridership on the buses outside of our constituency of auto-less low- and moderate-income families where public transportation was a lifeline to work, grocery stores, schools, and public services.  Amani United leaders testified that buses were important and safety was an issue, but kept out of the weeds on buses having folks riding shotgun and creating another killing zone on wheels.

Was this a bargaining strategy or what?  The cost of putting a deputy on every bus route would be phenomenal!  The union must realize that this would be a budget buster and would end any hope of better wages and benefits.  If driver security and thefts of the fare-box were real issues, a bulletproof Plexiglas apparatus similar to the separation for cab drivers would be a simple, one-time fix and expense.  Live cameras and even metal screeners connected to the doors would be easier and cheaper to protect passengers, it would seem?

My small experience at the hearing certainly made me think, but I can’t say that either the commissioners or the union were doing much more than bulking up their own positions.

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Please enjoy Lonely People from Rickie Lee Jones.

Thanks to KABF.

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Building Political Clout from Scratch

San Francisco    The last session on this tour of Milwaukee and Amani United’s steadily progressing leadership development had a curious title:  platform.  Curious, because the organization had a fairly detailed issue agenda formed over recent years.  Much of the scope of my work with them initially had been helping them construction programs and campaigns to put the platform expressed into action.

Once the leaders were assembled, it became clear that the real topic was how to get others, especially public figures, to take the organization and its issues seriously.  Elections for city and county offices from the top executive posts down the ballot, including alderman and county council members, were set for early in the coming year.  Filing was right after the beginning of 2020 followed by a mid-February primary and an early April general election.  The question before Amani United was really the classic one:  how does a nonpartisan community organization build power for the powerless.

A default option is usually holding a community forum, and that made sense here as well.  It’s an opportunity to showcase organizational issues and ask candidates to respond and make commitments.

As usual, easier said than done.  The organization had tried one with partner organizations in the past and watched as two critical problems developed.  At one level, the meeting was hijacked by an outside group whose questions then sucked up all of the air in the room, allowing all candidates and officials to walk out glad handing.  At the other level, the outreach effort was weak, giving outsiders and officials the opportunity to ignore the community because it was disorganized and not present in force.  Lesson learned, get ready for the next test!

The plan became to utilize the regular monthly meetings on the first Saturday of every month to invite existing elected officials including the three aldermen who represent different pieces of the Amani neighborhood to come to a portion of each meeting in the last half-hour to answer questions.  With seven Saturdays between now and filing, members would have an opportunity to measure responses of existing candidates in advance and by the invitation, their new unity, and clear questions send a message that there’s a new game in town this time around with Amani United.  There’s also a regular meeting on a fixed Tuesday every month, which would give Amani an opportunity to also invite rumored and perspective candidates to come to meet the members and get on record on Amani issues as well, offering more bites at the apple.  Additionally, killing two birds with one stone, it would help attendance.

Once the outline of the plan was fixed, then the discussion became about voter registration deadlines for the election and how to take advantage of new legislation in Wisconsin allowing same day registration as the election.  Amani produced 98% turnout of all eligible voters in 2008 when Obama was on the ballot, so it has already proven that when it cares about issues and candidates, they are unbeatable.  The emerging platform plan will allow them to remind officials to pay attention.

This plan isn’t enough to build power for the powerless, but coupled with a steady diet of campaigns and actions on the drawing board and already being put in practice, look out Milwaukee, or whatever community and city that is willing to do the work to win with people power.

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