Milwaukee activists write a fictional account of the struggle for workers’ rights


“‘Good Almighty God, what that? What is that?’ Eve’s scream was loud enough to reach the foreman’s office. She jumped three feet back from the sorting table when the two foremen stormed in.

“That’s human flesh in there!” Eve gestured to the jumble of hospital linens. Sure enough, a gelatinous piece of something purple had rolled off a sheet onto the table.

These are the first lines of the new novel, Stand Up: Tales of Struggle, by longtime Milwaukee social activists Ellen Bravo and Larry Miller (hard baler284 pages).

If readers expect a long, dry philosophical treatise on civil and workers’ rights disguised as fiction, they’ll be pleasantly surprised that the storytelling is the main attraction here.

Bravo and Miller are a wife and husband team with a long history of activism in the Milwaukee community. Bravo is best known for her involvement with 9to5, an organization fighting for the rights of women in the workplace and in society. Miller began his activism as an industrial worker, later as a teacher in Milwaukee and an elected school board principal.

The concept for the book came from essays that Miller wrote about his experiences as a laborer in the South. He showed the essays to friends and thought he could turn them into short stories. Ellen had written fiction on her own and had plenty of stories she could add to the mix. When they took the plan to a publisher, their first thought was a collection of short stories. The publisher suggested they write a novel instead.

The first vignette tells the story of hospital laundresses in a 1970 Atlanta fight for basic sanitation: masks, protective clothing and gloves among other improvements in working conditions. Here, the main laundry character is Nick Turner, a kid from central Wisconsin, whose life throughout the book parallels that of Miller. Miller admits he worked in a hospital laundry in Atlanta.

Nick eventually meets another social activist, Sophie Reznick, much like Ellen Bravo. They fall in love, get married, move to Milwaukee and start a family.

Sophie works with Working Women United to fight sexism, domestic violence and equal rights for workers regardless of gender or race. While Miller draws on Nick’s personal essays, Bravo creates characters and scenarios that are less historical but based on his own experience and that of others.

In a Bravo story, Dori is a young black woman who works at Peoples’ Trust Bank. But she is torn about whether she should speak out about the instances of sexism and racism she witnesses. . She convinces herself that she can only speak once she has achieved a position of power in the organization.

Her mother, who has been a social activist all her life, steps in, telling Dori she can’t wait. it already has the power to make institutional changes.

Says Bravo, “It was an inspiration from Jane Fonda who called me in 2006.” The film 9 to 5 was inspired by ideas from Bravo herself. Fonda and Lily Tomlin were considering a follow-up film some twenty years later with the working title, 24/7. Fonda’s idea was to have her character from the first film face her own daughter making compromises in management.

Fonda asked Bravo to help create a plan, but they were unable to move the film studio forward. When she decided to write Standing, Bravo asked Fonda if she could use the idea in her book. “Absolutely,” Fonda said.

A true story in the book is Governor Tommy Thompson’s signing of Wisconsin’s Family Medical Leave Act. Originally, Thompson wanted a much narrower bill. The child in the book who gets hit by a car and needs further medical attention was actually Bravo and Miller’s son. They changed that character to a young girl in the novel. Current Milwaukee State Senator John Plewa is mentioned in the novel and arranged for children to be brought to the Capitol to lobby for the bill and ultimately for the Governor’s signature. Thompson relented and signed the larger measure, stating, “It was the kids who pushed me to do this.” He gave the pen to Bravo and Miller’s son.

In the novel, Nick returns to school, becomes a high school social studies teacher, and finds himself teaching at Custer High School, the very school where Miller taught. The toxic waste that Nick’s students find in the nearby playground was actually discovered when Miller was teaching Custer.

Later, Nick is elected to the Milwaukee school board, as is Miller. The final chapter is reflective, with both “Sophie” and “Nick” now in their sixties, more or less retired, but still socially active.

Milwaukee-area readers might have fun trying to figure out if real companies are targeted in the book under fictitious names, such as Central States Airlines and Peoples’ Trust Bank. The stand-up that takes place in the novel at Central States Airlines is modeled after a similar incident at TWA in the late 1980s. The Peoples’ Trust Bank is not modeled after any particular bank. There are just enough local references to keep locals grounded: Marquette University, Lakefront, Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee Journal.

Bravo says it’s hard to get into bookstores for presentations. Many have closed, and of those still operating, many have not held book signings. Over the next few weeks, she and Miller will travel to Oakland, DC and New York. A few virtual presentations are planned. So far the book has received excellent reviews from Jacquelyn Mitchard, Gloria Steinem and many social activists.

Miller says they’re too busy signing books and doing interviews to consider a sequel. In this book, Miller only briefly touches on his character’s activity in the teachers’ union and the school board. “It could be a whole other book,” says Miller.

As for the critics close to home, Bravo says “My 97-year-old friend complained there wasn’t enough sex, and our eldest son thought there was too much.”

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