Marching for justice at Palermo’s Pizza

Benjamin Ratliffe reports on the outpouring of solidarity for Palermo's Pizza workers during a march to commemorate their now one-year-old strike.

Palermo workers march to mark the one-year anniversary of their strike (Leslie Amsterdam)Palermo workers march to mark the one-year anniversary of their strike (Leslie Amsterdam)

JUNE 1 marked the one-year anniversary of a strike by workers at the factory that makes Palermo's Pizza.

Last year, 80 workers kicked off a walkout organized by workers and activists with Voces de la Frontera. They walked out to protest unsafe working conditions, poverty wages and for the right to form the Palermo's Workers Union without fear of retaliation.

The strike drew immediate sympathies and solidarity from workers across the state, but since then, it has blossomed into a multifaceted campaign, including continued pickets at the plant, speak-outs in both Milwaukee and Madison, and a boycott campaign in both cities and their respective University of Wisconsin (UW) campuses.

In commemoration of the anniversary, and as the next step in the fight, about 60 workers and supporters marched 18 miles from the factory, Palermo's Plaza, to the mansion of the company owner, Palermo's heir Giacomo Fallucca. Along the way, marchers displayed banners, receiving many honks of approval from passing drivers, and chanted "No justice, no pizza!"

At rest stops along the way, workers were greeted by various organizations showing their solidarity. About 40 people gathered at the second stop, half from Madison, organized by the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), the local AFL-CIO labor council. SCFL President Kevin Gundlach told the crowd:

We came to stand in solidarity with the workers at Palermo's who have been treated unfairly. It's important that we stand up for each other when workers are under attack. This is a matter of workers' rights, but it's also about immigrant rights and about human rights as well.

This is certainly a sentiment the workers share, and in a time of escalated attacks on unions and immigrant workers, the Palermo's workers have combined the fight for both in a dynamic campaign.

At each stop, enthusiastic crowds met marchers. More than 50 organizations co-sponsored the solidarity actions, including over a dozen union locals, multiple labor councils, United Students Against Sweatshops, the Industrial Workers of the World, Reproductive Justice Collective, 9to5 Wisconsin, UW-Madison Teaching Assistants' Association Executive Board, Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, the Overpass Light Brigade, The Forward! Marching Band and the International Socialist Organization.

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THE MARCH concluded with a vigil outside the Falluca mansion in the upscale suburb of Mequon, Wis., surrounded by police and private security. During the vigil, Cesar, a Palermo's workers, spoke to the diverse and still-energized group:

This company is a racist and discriminatory company. They don't care or ask when someone needs help. Today we are here in front of the Falluca family house because they have refused to meet with us. They wouldn't come to us so we have come to him. This isn't just a Palermo's workers' struggle. It's a struggle for all immigrants. It is time for all workers to lift their heads up high and put a stop to these companies everywhere who abuse our labor.

Over the course of the strike, boycott actions have gained support across the country. Recently, a pizza stand at UW-Milwaukee that sold Palermo's pizzas was closed early for the summer, and Fresh Mart at the UW-Madison has stopped selling them.

In both cases, instead of admitting that they were complying with the boycott, the vendors have attributed other factors to their decision to stop selling the pizza. At Fresh Mart, the owner claimed his discontinuation of Palermo's wasn't motivated by the boycott, but by a decrease in sales--as though one has nothing to do with the other.

In addition, the strike has drawn much-needed attention to the unsafe working conditions at the plant. Workers have been forced to come to work sick and have suffered numerous injuries. In May, a 21-year-old Burmese worker lost three fingers in machinery.

According to a press release from Voces do la Frontera:

The new citations issued by OSHA carry fines totaling $38,500. These include seven "serious" violations and one "other-than-serious" violation for process safety violations surrounding the ammonia refrigeration system...[Buildup of ammonia gas] was the cause of the West Texas fertilizer plant tragedy last month.

During the march, Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces explained that Palermo's workers reported the buildup of ammonia gas in the factory's expanded refrigeration system, thus avoiding a potential disaster.

Ironically, a few months before the strike began, Fallucca was awarded the BizStarts Milwaukee Inspirational Entrepreneur Award. During his acceptance speech, he said, "My father always said, 'Do your job better than your boss.'"

Fallucca should remember this, considering that the workers at his factory very likely saved his company, not to mention the city adjacent to the factory, from potential catastrophe.

Regardless, Fallucca refuses to meet with the Palermo's Worker Union. Whatever the end result of this fight, Palermo's workers have proven that a bold strike and solidarity campaign can galvanize labor and community activists.

Particularly in Wisconsin, this kind of unapologetic resistance is vital to rebuilding a movement for labor and immigrant rights in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 and the ongoing austerity regime he and his cronies are pushing on the state.

Robin Gee contributed to this article.