Will Brewers stadium project need a community benefits deal to fly?

By: - September 19, 2023 5:15 am

When the Fiserv Forum arena was built in Milwaukee, the project included job and union representation guarantees for workers who would be employed there. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

When Republicans announced their proposal Monday to put state and local taxpayers’ money into American Family Field, they made a point of comparing the deal to the one Wisconsin lawmakers approved in 2015 to build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks legislation, however, passed after a coalition of community groups obtained an agreement with the NBA team’s owners: a memorandum of understanding to negotiate guarantees for local jobs and other community benefits, not only while the arena was being built but after it was up and running.

So far neither the Brewers, GOP lawmakers nor the deal’s biggest Milwaukee cheerleaders appear to have sought out that kind of support for the Brewers stadium renovation — either from the union that represents stadium workers nor potential allies.  

It could make a potentially significant difference from how the Bucks arena project came together, especially with Milwaukee lawmakers who have already reacted with deep skepticism to the GOP proposal.

“Nobody has approached us” about the proposal, Carlos Ginard, whose union represents food and beverage servers at the stadium, told the Wisconsin Examiner on Monday. “Nobody has talked to us.”

Ginard is vice president of the Chicago Midwest Joint Board of Workers United. American Family Field food and beverage workers belong to Local 122 of the union.  

“If these jobs can stay in Milwaukee, we’ll be extremely happy,” Ginard said. “But at the same time, we’re not happy that the majority of the costs are going to be on the backs of regular taxpayers, including our members who work there. We’re talking about multi-billionaires who own professional sports teams, and our members make nowhere near what they make.”

Peter Rickman led the coalition that negotiated the community benefits agreement with the Milwaukee Bucks for the Fiserv Forum arena. The agreement itself was signed in 2016, but the memorandum of understanding signed a year earlier helped pave the way for passage of the state aid legislation.

The benefits agreement included provisions to guarantee local employment and union representation for Fiserv Forum employees once the arena was built. The formation of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Union (MASH) followed.

MASH represents 900 people working at the Fiserv Forum and in the Deer District, the entertainment and hospitality district developed along with the arena and included in the benefits agreement. Rickman is now the president of MASH.

MASH is also a workforce intermediary program, otherwise known as a hiring hall, that employers who have signed contracts with the union can turn to when filling positions.

The Brewers stadium project “has always been pretty different than the discussion that occurred around what is now the Fiserv Forum and the Deer District,” Rickman told the Wisconsin Examiner Monday.

As the Bucks proposal was taking shape, “it was in the context of there being potentially 1,500 new jobs in the service and hospitality industry,” Rickman said. “That provided a means to cast a new mold on what that kind of work could be like. So that’s why there was a full-throated campaign to secure a community benefits agreement for living wages, union rights and a workforce intermediary program.”

Rickman said he sees potential subjects for a benefits agreement on the American Family Field project, but there isn’t a role for MASH since it doesn’t represent the baseball stadium’s workers.

“Ultimately policy makers are going to have to wrestle with the idea: Do we want to subsidize this stadium project simply for having this major league baseball franchise extend their lease? And they’re not going to be able to have that kind of conversation, with people talking about fundamentally transforming the service and hospitality work that’s at the heart of the economic and racial inequality crisis that defines the city?”

Support from some Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate particularly could be essential to pass the legislation in the face of likely divisions among the body’s Republicans, and Rickman suggested a strong benefits agreement would probably be needed to sell them on a deal. It’s not clear when or if that will become part of the discussion, however.

The prospect of a benefits agreement at Fiserv Forum was something that the Bucks’ owners “could bring to the discussion with policymakers eight years ago,” Rickman said. With the Brewers’ owners, however, “I don’t think it’s happening right now.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.