Union protest targets Johnson, unemployment supplement

    Unemployment pay press conference
    Troy Brewer, a leader of the Milwaukee Area Services and Hospitality Workers union and an unemployed cook, speaks at a press conference outside the federal court house in Milwaukee on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of MASH)

    Protesting Sen. Ron Johnson’s opposition to extending a $600 weekly federal supplement to unemployment pay, members of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH) erected a “living room” outside the Milwaukee federal courthouse on Thursday, where the senator’s Milwaukee office is located.

    “The $600 a week payment broken down is $15 an hour for 40 hours,” said Troy Brewer, a leader of the union and an unemployed cook who had been working at three jobs before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of his employers. “That $600 allowed me to pay my mortgage and feed and clothe my children. Now, Sen. Johnson and our President think that the payment is more than working families deserve. I say to them, that $15 an hour is just the bottom end to a living wage.”

    The $600 supplement was part of the federal CARES Act passed in late March. It expired at the end of July. The House of Representatives passed a bill in May that included an extension of the supplement, but the Senate’s Republican leadership has refused to take up that bill.

    Johnson has on several occasions claimed that the amount of the supplement was preventing people from returning to work in jobs that paid less than they were getting in unemployment compensation, a claim that economic research has disputed.

    Instead of renewing the original supplement, a bill from Senate Republicans included a $300 supplement, similar to a short-term executive memorandum that President Donald Trump signed in August. Democrats blocked the bill this week, arguing that it was inadequate.

    “There is no disincentive for me not to work,” Brewer, a father of three, told reporters outside the federal courthouse. All concession service is shut down at Miller Park and Fiserv Forum, two of his employers, and restaurants are running with smaller staffs because of physical distancing rules for employees, he said. “There is no disincentive for me. There is just no work or no hours for what I do.”

    Union supporter with microphone
    Laid-off Fiserv Forum cook Anthony Steward (Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Union)

    “School is out and they want the kids to learn at home,” said MASH member and Fiserv Forum cook Anthony Steward, who has two school-age children. “But, how are we supposed to buy the things our kids need to learn when we can’t afford the basics?”

    Nicole Gallman, a Milwaukee IT engineer, described a gap between the rhetoric and actions of political leaders during the pandemic.

    “It bothers me that people say, ‘We’re all in this together,’” Gallman said. “We really are not. In this pandemic, people are dying, people are losing jobs and housing, putting them at greater risk of infection, but yet, landlords are still evicting people, companies are still putting their profits over workers’ safety, and our elected leaders are failing to step up.”

    Gallman pointed to government bailouts over the years for banks, corporations and whole industries. “But in our toughest times, they are not supporting the American people,” she said.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with 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. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.