No work. No pay. No chance to highlight economic inequalities and the ways collective power is making a difference in their city.
The Democratic National Convention was supposed to be an opportunity for Milwaukee—an opportunity to show off to the world, bring in 50,000 expected visitors, and boost the local economy in an unprecedented way.
But to Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, or MASH, a union that represents service workers at the Fiserv Forum, the city lost out on something even more critical: a chance to call attention to the economic and social struggles of Milwaukee’s working class.
“There’s palpable frustration, dissatisfaction, but we recognize it’s not safe,” Rickman, also a Bernie Sanders delegate, said Monday morning, the day the convention began. “So we’ve lost the ability to tell the story of economic injustice here and across the country. The way we’re fixing that is to build unions, raise wages, and transform lives.”
The convention, originally scheduled for July, was gradually scaled down as the coronavirus pandemic progressed. It was pushed back to August in April, just a few weeks into the pandemic. Then in June, the Democratic National Committee announced the convention would be moved from the 17,000-seat Fiserv Forum to the Wisconsin Center.
With the move came the announcement that most of the convention would be virtual, but former Vice President Joe Biden was still set to travel to Milwaukee to accept the Democratic presidential nomination.
That changed on Aug. 5, when the bomb dropped that Biden would be virtually accepting the nomination from his home in Delaware and that no other guest speakers would be traveling to Milwaukee. Now, only Wisconsin officials — U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Gov. Tony Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — will be speaking from the Wisconsin Center, while the other guest-speakers will deliver virtual remarks.
There was still a sizable security footprint, with U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, and Milwaukee Police officers among those providing protection for the event. However, the footprint shrank drastically to just a roughly one-block radius around the Wisconsin Center.
Regardless, it was still important for people like Linda Negratti, a retired human resources professional from Green Bay, to come to the city on Monday for the convention’s start.
“No. 1, it’s history,” Negratti said of why she still came. “No. 2, I had such high hopes this would be a nice, positive impact for Milwaukee.”
Negratti said she was disappointed in the nation’s failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in what amounted to a cancellation of the convention. As of Monday there were nearly 5.4 million confirmed cases in the U.S. and nearly 170,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Wisconsin, there were almost 66,000 cases and 1,039 deaths as of Monday, according to the Department of Health Services.
Negratti pointed to South Korea, where she said her niece has taught English for five years. South Korea effectively contained COVD-19 so far; a recent spike has resulted in 745 new cases within the past three days, but the country of about 51.6 million still only has about 15,000 cases. (Wisconsin, with fewer than six million residents, has four times the number of cases.)
“Here we sit, how many months into it, and if we’d had a national strategy and consistent behavior based on values — which is wear a mask for everybody else, not just you … we didn’t rise to that occasion,” Negratti said.
On the southeastern side of the Wisconsin Center stood Stephen Parlato, a Democrat from Boulder, Colorado. He held a large banner that said: “BROKEN GOVERNMENT. SHATTERED LIVES.”
Although Parlato knew there wasn’t much happening in Milwaukee, he came to town anyway to support the convention and protest Republican leadership.
“It’s become my second occupation for the past two years,” Parlato said.
Rickman, the union president, said Republican leadership on both a state and federal level is at fault for the ever-shrinking convention.
“One-hundred percent of the public health issues that kept this convention from happening lie at the feet of Donald Trump, (Wisconsin Assembly Speaker) Robin Vos, and (Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader) Scott Fitzgerald,” Rickman said. “They all contributed to our country’s failure to tackle and overcome this pandemic.”
President Trump is making an in-person appearance in Oshkosh on Monday despite the health risk.