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Exploring the labor union developed to protect workers in Milwaukee's Deer District

Fiserv Forum in Downtown Milwaukee
Stock Adobe
Fiserv Forum in Downtown Milwaukee

Before the Deer District was even constructed, there was a lot of talk about what it would mean for Milwaukee. Developers claimed the new space would bring more money and life to the downtown neighborhood, and above all else, it would lead to jobs. But the kinds of jobs that come with a new entertainment district are often low-income, low-stability, and high-stress — the kinds of jobs Laura Dresser would consider “bad.”

Dresser is the associate director of the High Road Strategy Center, a think-tank that in-part looks at employment conditions in Wisconsin. But in the case of the Deer District, developers created a community benefits agreement ensuring certain rights for its future employees. That led to the creation of MASH — the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, a labor union that represents these workers. A recent report from High Road Strategy Center details the benefits this union and agreement it has brought to its workers.

According to Dresser, a community benefits agreement is an agreement that can be made between a developer and a private community group representing community interests. It is a development that ensures an agreement that the workers and community can support.

Peter Rickman, the president of MASH, says, "Only with a legally binding community benefits agreement can people of a neighborhood or a whole city or a region be certain that the promises made by developers, once they're put on paper, will actually come true."

While explaining some aspects of the community benefits agreement, Dresser says, "One was some wage standards for the work, and another was labor piece for the people who will do that work. That means that if those workers want a union, the developer is agreeing that they're not going to stand in the way of that."

Rickman says, "If we're going to move beyond the income inequality economy that defines this city and far too many places around the country, it's not going to be because we simply hope that enough small businesses are created. It's going to be because we transform the service and hospitality jobs... and support union jobs that once defined workers in our neighborhoods across this city."


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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