Working conditions and the state of labor in the nation have been hot topics of late, particularly in the state of Wisconsin. “Right to work” laws have been fiercely debated across the country while several states have seen an increased minimum wage, all of which has sparked renewed popular interest in economic policy.
Local activism has recently brought the national discourse on workers’ rights to the Northwoods with the founding of the Northern Wisconsin Center for Working People (NWCWP). The workers’ center, only a couple of months old, has already provided services to dozens of Wisconsin workers, illustrating the efforts of one lifelong Rhinelander resident to bring bread as well as roses to workers across the state.
The NWCWP watches hopefully over Stevens Street from its corner of the ArtStart building, opposite City Hall. President Jackie Cody has stacks of pamphlets and literature at the ready for visitors, including the Wisconsin Workers’ Rights Manual. “They’re really worth their weight in gold,” says Jackie, “simply because many workers don’t know that yes, there are some rights they have, and they should exercise those rights.”
Jackie says the mission of the center is to make sure workers know their rights in order to empower them at their job sites and allow them to exercise leadership roles and work with their supervisors to create a positive work environment. The center is volunteer-based and not open every day, but they have already worked with dozens of workers from as far south as Stevens Point and north into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
This vast geographic range, according to Jackie, comes from the fact that the NWCW is a unique presence in the Northwoods. “We’ve broken the mold because typically worker rights centers tend to be an urban phenomenon, so to speak.” Worker centers are non-profit mediating organizations that support low-wage workers who are not members of a collective bargaining unit for various reasons. Jackie describes the history of worker centers. “They originally were organized around migrant workers, immigrants and minority groups—those typically taken very much advantage of by employers and having no place to turn for a resource.”
It can be said broadly that the NWCWP provides support for employees who lack union representation in the workplace, but Jackie says that they do not promote unions. “We support the work [of unions] because we know that they have helped raise wages in the American workforce, but that is not what we are here for.”
The corner office that houses the center is not a big room, but it is spacious and welcoming. Jackie has a desk, several chairs and tables around the perimeter filled with files, pamphlets, books, a computer and a printer. Big windows bring to life the white walls that feature a series of posters titled “Images of Labor,” depicting workers in various capacities. “You see the brightness of this room – it’s actually kind of a cheery place – and by the time we’re done, visitors know that they have been heard, that there is support, and that there is some sort of way to ameliorate their situation,” she says. “They just feel so empowered.”
Jackie grew up in Rhinelander. Her career as a public school teacher brought her back to the area, where she spent 34 years in the School District of Rhinelander. She began teaching 5th grade students at Pine Lake Elementary, a school she attended as a child. This was followed by 6th grade at Pelican, then stints at Central School and James Williams Middle School, which preceded the final years of her career teaching 5th grade at Cassian-Woodboro Elementary.
Although retired, Jackie says that it is still vital to continue supporting workers because of the widespread economic benefits of a happy workforce. “We need to care about what happens to workers in our community. It’s for the economic health of the community. Healthy and safe workplaces protect workers from debilitating injury resulting in possible financial ruin. Community workers earning a living wage can have adequate housing, enough food, reliable transportation, ability to meet medical needs and save for the future while still having some left over for discretionary spending.
“We have yet to achieve this for all workers,” says Jackie.
Cases on which the NWCW has so far worked have included people in industries ranging from hospitality and manufacturing to warehouses, transportation and even horse ranches. Two-thirds of visitors to the center have been women, Jackie says. The majority of cases have been disputes over wages and scheduling, followed by discharge and unemployment insurance. Some cases, however, have concerned on-site grievances. “If some employers just understood how much their employees just want to be listened to, I can’t believe the tiny things that could change at that job site that would engender so much loyalty from them.” Jackie thinks that the center can be instrumental in improving communication between employers and employees. “And I don’t understand why people have to work in places where there’s not justice, and part of justice is being treated with respect and dignity by those employers.”
Jackie, who was deeply involved in her union for the duration of her career, is not the only member of the NWCW with experience advocating for workers. “We were adding up all of the volunteers, and we have a cumulative 150 years’ experience backing up workers, negotiating or whatever else. I think all of us working at the center are here for the same reason: we just want to improve the lives of workers and their families.”
Although she admits that, “I can’t really point to anything that makes me run,” Jackie credits her lifelong activism to dinner-table discussions with her parents and her competitive nature. “I love to compete, and I hate to lose.”
Regardless of what drives Jackie to stay active in the community, her action has not gone unnoticed. In 2011 she was a recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Grassroots Activist Award in recognition of her lifelong community organizing efforts. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin said of her, “Jackie’s faith in the power of average, hardworking people to make a difference is personally inspiring to me.”
Jackie emphasizes that she is not waging a war against employers. “Obviously, most employers are not bad; but those who are can really set back the productivity of a workplace. The way they treat people has its effect on the general population.”
She refers often to her restless mind as something that keeps her on her feet. “I like ideas and I like creative solutions to problems.” She says that retirement is only the beginning – not the end – of what one can do. To people looking for a meaningful experience in their retirement, she offers that they should “follow their passion, and hopefully that means using their life experiences to help achieve a better quality of life for their families and the communities they live in.”
For the restless Jackie Cody, her lifelong passion for improving the lives of working people has only expanded in her retirement.
Matt Persike lives in Rhinelander. His articles have also appeared in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.