No justice, no pizza

June 14, 2012

Benjamin Ratliffe reports on a struggle of primarily immigrant workers in Milwaukee.

ABOUT 80 striking workers and supporters sent their message of struggle at a picket and press conference on June 11 outside the plant in Milwaukee where Palermo's Pizza makes its frozen pizzas. The action was organized by the Palermo's Workers Union, in conjunction with Voces de la Frontera.

Unions and community groups joined the picket line, chanting, "Who's got the power? We've got the power! What kind of power? Union power!" and "No Justice, No Pizza!" The strike has been led primarily by Latina/Latino workers, and they have already scored a victory against the bosses and Immigrations Customs and Enforcement (ICE), which could have national significance.

For two weeks, nearly 80 percent of Palermo's workforce, including temp workers, has been out on strike. Their core demands are the recognition of the independent Palermo's Workers Union as bargaining representative, negotiation of a fair contract, increased safety standards on the job, and the reinstatement of the 20 workers who have been fired in retaliation for their union activities.

Striking workers and supporters gathered for a press conference at the Palermo's Pizza plant
Striking workers and supporters gathered for a press conference at the Palermo's Pizza plant (Ben Ratliffe | SW)

In a press statement, Palermo's owners claimed the strike was "a campaign of misinformation intended to generate ill will and punitive action against Palermo's, its employees and customers...initiated by a small group of activists." The company also asserts that organizers seized upon Palermo's cooperation with ICE as "an opportunity to use our employees for their own gain" and that allegations of retaliation against workers for union activities are false.

In 2011, ICE did indeed audit Palermo's and asked to see validation of certain employees immigration status. Around the same time, Palermo's created a policy under which workers could be terminated for missing three or four days of work, even if they had a doctor's notice.

IT WAS policies like this and the generally unsafe working condition at the plant that drove workers there to begin organizing as early as 2008. In the past two years, three employees have suffered amputations on the job due to work speed-ups and insufficient training, and Palermo's has been fined $7,000 by OSHA for violating safety regulations.

What you can do

Find out more about the struggle of Palermo's workers and what you can do to support them, visit the Voces de la Frontera website.

But Palermo's denies that this is a labor issue. Rather, they claim, it is an immigration issue. However, when the legal team of Voces de la Frontera challenged their involvement, ICE backed off, recognizing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protected rights of the workers, and this was a labor dispute in which they have no jurisdiction. Voces activists are hoping this will set a precedent in future organizing efforts nationwide.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera explained at the press conference why this is a struggle of national significance. In the wake of Wisconsin's failed recall effort, Neumann-Ortiz said the Palermo's struggle was proof that "you cannot buy people's dignity without facing resistance." A vote for union certification will be held on July 6.

Another speaker, Laura Torrez, a worker at Palermo's for 10 and a half years and a single mother of 6 children, explained that the duration of the strike is taking a toll on the families of workers. Twenty workers have already been fired for their support of the union drive, and Torrez herself was confronted by management who told her if she kept up her activities, "her family would have trouble." Torrez's niece, also a Palermo's worker, received a letter in the mail saying she had been replaced for strike activity.

When first-shift workers attempted to leave the building to join the picket the week before, management locked them in, claiming they would be fired if they attempted to walk off the job. According to Palermo's worker Daniel Mercado, they "escaped" through another exit. In the face of this intimidation, Torrez says, "We will keep up the fight until the company recognizes our union."

Favian McMurray, a steward for custodial workers in Madison Schools, whose co-workers are growing nervous about losing their collective bargaining rights when their contract expires next year, said she drove out to Milwaukee because "when there is an injustice to workers, you show up." Also joining the Palermo's workers picket were union members of United Food and Commercial Workers, AFSCME, the Steel Workers, and Service Employees International Union.

Community activists from Bail Out the People, as well as clergy members enthusiastically joined in. Early in the day, a young Latino man arrived at Palermo's Villa for a job interview. Instead, he joined the picket, stating, "These are my people. I don't want to capitalize on their misfortune."

Now that Palermo's workers have staved off the threat posed by ICE, they are aiming their fire right at the bosses. Palermo's Workers Union has put out a call for support through donations for their families, through an online petition that has gotten nearly 100 signers per day since going up, and by supporting the boycott of Palermo's products.

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