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Voices from the front lines of Wisconsin's labor movement

Israel Peña holds a microphone while wearing a May Day 2022 shirt
Joe Brusky
Joe Brusky
Israel Peña addressing the May Day 2022 crowd.

Growing up, Stephani Lohman wanted a job that paid well and would provide good work-life balance. She thought she might want to be a supervisor or a manager. And for 15 years, she was and that's when things started to change. She says the hardest workers didn't get rewarded. And what's more, they were actually getting paid the least.

"The real awakening was when I went to Canada with my partner," she says. "And he was studying in a university that centered alternative ways of thinking about labor."

At the time Lohman was pursuing her nursing career in a country with a robust nursing union (about 250,000 members) and a lot of power. She says she didn't even notice the union — she didn't work overtime, her unit was never short workers and says it was a great job.

"And then I came back to the United States and it was the exact opposite," she says.

Stephani Lohman
Jimmy Gutierrez
Stephani Lohman at the WUWM studio.

Lohman says a patient got onto a unit with a loaded gun and she started to worry about the safety of her patients, coworkers and herself. When she brought up the situation to management, she says she didn't just feel unheard, but also felt accused that it was her that did something wrong. That's when she started to look into starting a union.

"I just went on the internet, I didn't know anybody, and it quickly became clear that I was in way over my head," she shares. "Organizing a union is a lot of work, and management really puts a lot of their resources, which means money, into opposing any efforts to take some of their power and give it to to the workers."

Lohman eventually applied for a new job, one she says she would feel safe at, at the only place that had a nurses' union — the Milwaukee VA. When she got there, she found that there was only one person still actively fighting for all 918 members of the bargaining unit.

"Burnout was like what he was in the beginning [of COVID], he was like a crispy fried version of himself," says Lohman. "I thought, well, I'm going to help. And he said, 'Great, then you're the vice president.'"

While union efforts are different at the VA compared to other work places since it's a part of the federal government, Lohman says she was successful in activating more of the workers to join union efforts.

"One thing that I do is I try to get rid of the lines that divide us, and talk about our working conditions, which are what unite us," she says. "We have been able to kind of effectively breathe life back into our union by engaging people in their material conditions. So talking only about what's going on at work, but how did that impacts our ability to give veterans care."

Lohman says during the pandemic, everyone celebrated nurses as heroes, but the saying at work is that it's now, "heroes to zeros." The job today is about doing more with less, she says, which might mean taking one more patient or working with one less support staff for longer hours.

"And I think that, that has also helped to bring people to the labor movement," says Lohman, "because they see that voting for this person or that person hasn't led to an easement in any of this."

Meanwhile, about 120 miles north in Green Bay, Israel Peña is a carpenter and immigrant worker. He was fired from the company he worked for after attending a march and organizing fellow workers to fight for a path to citizenship and other rights.

Peña says what saved him was being a part of Voces de la Frontera's Essential Workers Network, which directed him to a program called DALE, or Deferred Action for Labor Enforcement. The program helps defend against deportation, provides work permits and helps workers obtain social security cards and licenses.

>> More information on DALE

Peña says he knew that he was protected again reprisals, such as being fired for organizing colleagues, but he says it's not easy for immigrant and undocumented workers to speak up, especially those in rural areas where it's hard to find a network of support.

"What we need to lose is our fear [because we need] to know how to organize ourselves," Peña says. "That is the only right that I see that has more power, or more weight, so that we can achieve things like what we achieved in the company where I worked."

What Peña achieved was organizing another 90 people to joining DALE's campaign and obtain work permits.

"We know there are many people who believe in us and support us, they know that we also have a role to play here in this country," he says. "There are many people who also discriminate against us or see us as like, 'No, we don't have rights.'"

Peña says those people don't see him and other immigrant workers as people, rather "objects of labor." But he says what he would like more than support from those people, is support from the government, which he says depends on the labor of workers like him.

"Solidarity isn't a word, it's an action. ... It's not just showing up when it's convenient, it's showing up when it's hard," Lohman says. "How can you show up and what do you have to put on the line?"


Jimmy is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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