A push to boycott Palermo's

Tina TreviƱo-Murphy reports on Palermo's Pizza brazen mistreatment of its workers and the campaign to win justice for them.

DOZENS OF workers at Palermo's Pizza, a Milwaukee-based frozen pizza producer, have been on strike for five months, and activists have been building a national boycott against the company in solidarity with their struggle--including students at major universities pushing to end sponsorship agreements with Palermo's.

The strike began on June 1 with modest demands--union recognition, the rehiring of striking workers, improved working conditions and a fair contract--but the company appears determined to deny justice to its workers.

What you can do

For information about how you can help the Boycott Palermo's effort, check out the Slice of Justice website.

Over the past three years, there have been three incidents of amputations in the Palermo's factory, for which the company has paid fines to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Other health and safety complaints have been ignored by Palermo's.

But the grievances against the company don't end there. In These Times has reported on several charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board, and a now-indefinitely-postponed union election, and the New York Times has covered the unjust firing of undocumented workers.

Many of the strikers have young children, and in some instances, both parents are part of the walkout, which makes getting by on the limited strike fund difficult. Some workers have left to find at least part-time jobs to support themselves while the labor dispute continues.

Five months into the strike, workers want to up the pressure on the company with the growing national boycott campaign, which the national AFL-CIO endorsed in early August. Across the country, people have been demanding that retailers refrain from purchasing pizza from Palermo's until the company recognizes the right of its workers to unionize.

The national boycott efforts have been accompanied by pickets and other actions at Costco, which sells the majority of Palermo's pizzas (sold in stores under the brand name Kirkland's in the frozen section). Costco purchases more than 60 percent of the pizzas made by Palermo's.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has gotten personally involved in the campaign, encouraging Costco to investigate whether Palermo's is in compliance with Costco's own supplier code of conduct.

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IN AN effort to increase its brand recognition, Palermo's is initiating sponsorship agreements at several major universities. The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), for example, began a $200,000 sponsorship with Palermo's on June 2--the day after workers went on strike.

When members of UW's Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) delivered a letter to the university's chancellor demanding that he end the business relationship, Palermo's sent a response the next day. The company's fear of having its name associated with unfair working conditions demonstrates its brand sensitivity, which suggests that the boycott could be hugely influential.

As it turns out, Palermo's has been playing fast and loose with more than just its labor policies. An AFL-CIO report released in October revealed that Palermo's received $26 million in state subsidies for job creation and economic development. The subsidies required Palermo's "to create 56 full-time jobs paying at least $10.88 per hour over a period of 36 consecutive months," but the company has failed to deliver on its pledge.

"I worked at Palermo's Pizza for five years," said Benita Garcia during her October 17 testimony before the Joint Committee on Audit at the Wisconsin state Capitol. "My starting salary rate was $7.25. My final salary was $8.94. We were obligated to work seven days a week, and the rate of pizzas we were required to produce was 85,000 to 90,000 pizzas per eight hours." As tears welled up in her eyes, she added, "It was very hard work."

While workers have been on strike, replacement employees have been hired at higher wages. In other words, the company is paying more to less experienced workers in order to keep the factory running. Palermo's products have been spotted across the region being sold at extremely discounted prices, indicating that the company is feeling the economic impact of the boycott campaign.

Now members of the Palermo Workers Union are embarking on a national speaking tour to increase awareness of the strike and initiate participation in the boycott. At the speaking tour's first stop held in Madison on October 24, the workers were asked exactly what it would take for them to win the strike. Their answer? "More community support." In other words, boycott Palermo's.