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Young workers in Milwaukee host online panel on new union organizing

By Ryan Hamann |
February 1, 2021
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Milwaukee, WI - On the evening of January 28, members of the Young Workers Committee (YWC) of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council (MALC) hosted an online discussion with workers that dealt with organizing unorganized workplaces.

Represented in this panel were Kellie Lutz, an organizer from the drive to unionize Stone Creek Coffee in the spring of 2019; Molly Kiefer, an employee at Wonderstate Coffee and new member of Teamsters Local 344; Ryan Jann and Brittany Walker, both new members of the International Association of Machinists at the Milwaukee Art Museum (IAM MAM); and Idalia Cervantes and Tommy Molina, workers with Voces de la Frontera seeking to wrap up their own organizing drive in a couple of weeks.

The Young Workers Committee closely followed each of these campaigns, often getting involved in spreading the word and showing up to events in solidarity with the workers. Together with the full support of Milwaukee Area Labor Council, members of Young Workers Committee wanted to provide a platform to these workers to share stories about their efforts. The organizers shared their experiences about what sparked the drives, how management responded, how they approached their co-workers, what things they would change, and many other topics.

The processes looked different in the different workplaces. Molly Kiefer, a worker at Wonderstate Coffee, said her and her co-workers tried to give their employers an opportunity to fix the problems, but they weren’t satisfied with the answers ownership gave.

“While they recognized that our list of concerns were all definitely issues, they didn’t have a good timeline for addressing them, and they didn’t want the workers involved in the decision-making process,” Kiefer said in explanation of what prompted the ultimately successful union drive with IBT Local 344.

Ownership decided to temporarily close down shop at Wonderstate, conveniently right after the union vote passed, but the new Teamsters remain hard at work. Kiefer spoke about the shift from winning the union to negotiating their first contract.

“It’s been fun because we’re really getting to imagine what we want our workplace to look like,” she said. “We can talk about the break policy, our wages, holiday time, paid time off, and other things like dress code and how many days in a row you work.”

Tommy Molina, the chapter organizer for immigrant and worker rights non-profit Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee, mentioned that there wasn’t really a single moment or incident that he could pinpoint for why the workers felt the need to organize.

“In many ways, it was little issues that were compounding over months and going unaddressed,” Molina said. “There are expectations [in the nonprofit industry] during certain periods to work 50-60 hours and not complain or say anything because that’s the culture. You’re there because you ‘love what you do.’”

Brittany Walker, a vital piece of the winning effort at the Milwaukee Art Museum, discussed how the struggle at her workplace revealed a part of herself and what her vision is going forward.

“It brought out a sense of fight in me I didn’t know I had, and I’m so grateful for it now because I don’t know how to stop fighting. Put me in the ring for any cause and I’m ready to fight. And that’s what we need, honestly,” Walker said.

She went on, “Like, let’s organize America. It seems very ambitious, but it’s totally necessary. These big corporations are eating folks alive.”

Kelly Lutz, the main organizer of the 2019 union effort at Stone Creek Coffee, said she was proud of what her and her team did even if they were ultimately unsuccessful in winning a union.

“The workers involved left a mark on the company that significantly changed the relationship between ownership and workers at Stone Creek. We laid a foundation and an example that it is possible to organize in the service industry,” Lutz said. “The issues workers face at Stone Creek are not specific to that particular company. These are issues you face all across the service industry. We combatted that by trying to organize a union.”

After moving on from Stone Creek, Lutz found work at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee and is now a rank-and-file steward as a certified nursing assistant. She said that her experiences during the Stone Creek drive better prepared her to be the workplace leader she is now. She had many lessons to offer other workers who may be seeking to organize their workplaces in the future.

“Make sure to examine management and always prepare for retaliation. Hear workers’ stories about how they’ve been disciplined or witnessed others being disciplined. Always take the workers word over what management has to say,” Lutz said. “Make solid assessments of who is close to management. See who is a voice for workers on the floor. Identify issues which are widely and deeply felt.”

She continued, “The odds are always in your favor as long as you have a team and a strategy and are ready to move and build.”

The Young Workers Committee, together with the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, hopes to build off of this successful web event and contribute to a resurgence of organizing the unorganized in Milwaukee and the surrounding area. When workers stand up for our rights and fight back, we can win! Working class, unite and fight!