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'Workers want to see respect': A look into Milwaukee's service industry crisis

man on stage
The Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality workers union
Peter Rickman, the president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, speaks at a rally at the Fiserv Forum.

Jobs in food service, janitorial work, security services and in human and health services oftentimes have unpredictable hours, lack health care benefits or pay low wages.

COWS, a research and policy center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, released a report outlining the barriers workers face in the service industry. Laura Dresser helped put together the report. She is the associate director of COWS and is also a clinical assistant professor of social work at UW-Madison.

In Milwaukee, there are a lot of vacant service industry jobs with employers stating that they're unable to fill positions. However, Dresser says that the structure and instability of service industry jobs are unsustainable for a stable life for workers. She emphasizes that this crisis in the industry has been an issue long before the pandemic.

"The problems that employers are having are exactly the same problems that workers are facing," Dresser says. "We had organized this work in ways that were unsustainable for workers."

She explains that Wisconsin is getting out of touch in how minimum wage is structured. In Wisconsin the minimum wage is $7.25, while in our neighboring states in Illinois and Minnesota are much higher.

According to the COWS report, when factoring in all the possible jobs in Milwaukee, the median salary in 2020 in the city is $20.00 an hour, which is about $42,000 a year if working 40 hours per week. When breaking it down within the service industry, the median wage of food prep workers was $11.00 an hour, which is barely above $20,000 a year.

Dresses stresses this is unsustainable for anybody. "Even if you got full-time work, it wouldn't keep a family of four out of poverty," she says.

On top of all that, throughout the pandemic service industry workers continuously work with customers. Even at times dealing with the new responsibility of enforcing mask mandates. "Customer service jobs have just gotten harder," Dresser says.

Across southeast Wisconsin, more and more service industry workers are unionizing. From Colectivo Coffeeto janitors in downtown Milwaukee, service workers are advocating for better benefits, higher wages and improved job quality.

Peter Rickman, the president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH), knows this struggle firsthand. Back in 2020, MASH was behind the landmark union contract for service workers at the Fiserv Forum. Now, they’re continuing to support workers across the service and hospitality sector.

When talking about the importance of unionizing in the service industry, Rickman connects back to Milwaukee's history of blue-collar union jobs. He says, "When the factories and foundries of this town were the source of tens of thousands of living wage union jobs, Milwaukee was at our best."

And with the increasing efforts within the service industry to unionize, he believes that it will only improve our nation.

"Every service sector worker, the 69,740 or so service workers in this community, when that group of people — more than 10% of our city’s population — has a living wage, union jobs look at what our neighborhoods and our communities will be like," Rickman says.

With their efforts in empowering workers, Rickman stresses that it's not on just the employee to advocate for change. Employers and policymakers need to step up to collaborate with workers to change the industry.

"We imagine a world where workers and employers across the industry come together at a table and set in place an accord establishing basic standards for wages," he says. "We imagine a world where employers and workers alike can link up at the center of the labor market to ensure that workers have employment when they need it and where they can find it."

Ultimately, both Dresser and Rickman emphasize that employers and policymakers can work with employees to change the industry structure.

"Workers want to see respect — respect of their time, respect for their contribution. And it isn't that there is one thing employers do," Dresser says. "And I hope that more and more employers are finding ways to move that respect for this workforce, and that we really change the structure of these jobs in that process."

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
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