Around 4,000 construction workers put in nearly 2 million work hours to build the Milwaukee Bucks' new $524 million arena. But now that the construction is done, the focus turns to more long-term jobs.
Fiserv Forum opened last Sunday to great fanfare as tens of thousands of people stopped by the grand opening for a look inside.
Bucks leadership and local politicians, including Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, assembled in front of the building to offer some remarks and cut the ribbon to mark the arena’s official opening.
Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton spoke to the crowd about the townhalls held by the Bucks and the City of Milwaukee. He said these meetings had a special purpose, "especially in neighborhoods with high unemployment, to try to connect the people who were living in those neighborhoods to the job opportunities that presented themselves, by the commitment that this state made by building Fiserv Forum."
One person starting a new job at the arena is 18-year-old Lazirra Burris, a cashier working in concessions. Working outside at the opening day block party, she said so far she loves her job. “It’s really a good experience, and there’s a lot of benefits behind it. You get paid breaks, work with new people, get to see new stuff, get to see the Bucks, everything,” Burris said.
She was not aware if her job provided health insurance, but said it was enough to live on.
For service and hospitality jobs like Burris’, the Bucks have entered into an agreement with MASH, or Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization. MASH serves as a union for its workers and also as a hiring hall, providing qualified service and hospitality workers to the Bucks and its contractors. The Bucks also contract with firms like Levy, who handles food concessions.
The agreement between MASH and the Bucks calls for an incremental increase of wages, ultimately getting to $15 per hour, for those positions and for filling half of all jobs in the development area with residents of targeted zip codes with high unemployment.
MASH indicates that the Bucks are looking to hire 1,000 service and hospitality workers.
Inside the arena at the grand opening, co-owner Wes Edens re-affirmed the Bucks’ commitment to jobs. "We’re very, very invested in trying to create economic development," he said. "And so, having a living wage, something we started with a long time ago, we want people to be able to work here and make good means and be a part of it. But hopefully the first derivative of all those jobs will be the stuff that happens in the area around here. This is the cornerstone of it. We hope there’s lots more to come."
But not everyone is so impressed. Outside the new arena, dozens of people representing IATSE Local 18, a union for stagehands in southeastern Wisconsin, stood with signs, protesting. Like MASH, Local 18 has a hiring hall, a pool of qualified workers for employers to choose from. But instead of representing service and hospitality workers, Local 18 represents jobs ranging from sound and light operators to stage carpenters and electricians.
“It does not meet the area standards. Plain and simple, that’s what it’s about,” Tom Gergerich, Local 18's business manager, said.
The union, he said, has been unable to make an agreement with the Bucks. Gergerich said the Bucks’ jobs do not offer their workers the prevailing wages for stagehand jobs throughout the area, rates that he said they’ve gotten for their workers at places like Summerfest and Wisconsin State Fair.
“Our base rates tend to be above $20/hour. We also have offerings in almost all of our agreements for medical benefits and for pension. We try to make sure that they’re realistic for people who have families,” Gergerich explained. He said they’ve heard the arena wages range from $12.50 to $14/hr, depending on experience levels, and the jobs are part-time, with no health benefits.
While most of the jobs that the Local 18 workers apply for at other venues are also part-time jobs, Gergerich said there is usually a path to establishing a health plan after a certain duration of work. He's said he's heard from people who have had employment offers from the Bucks that there is no avenue to benefits.
The Bucks declined to confirm or deny those details or comment on the union’s protests.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett voiced optimism. He said he’s been impressed with how well unions worked with Bucks’ ownership on the construction of the building. “This was done with union labor. And it was done, as a result, on-time and on-budget. I know there’s a disagreement right now between the stagehands union and the ownership. I’m hopeful that will get worked out.” Barrett added that the Bucks organization has, historically, backed family-supporting jobs.
And that squares with what one well-known past employee has heard. Former Buck and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar commented on the efforts: “I thought that was great that they made an outreach to various areas here in Milwaukee to get people looking for construction jobs and had aspirations for employment. I thought that was very thoughtful of them, and what this should be about.”