A slice of victory

Management at the Milwaukee factory that makes Palermo's Pizza has reached a settlement that will return eight workers to their job, with thousands of dollars in back pay--an effective confirmation that the company broke the law.

The battle at Palermo's began in earnest in June 2012 when 80 workers walked off the job to protest unsafe working conditions and poverty wages. The strikers, who had the support of the immigrant rights organization Voces de la Frontera, were demanding their right to form the Palermo's Workers Union without fear of retaliation. The following report was published at the Slice of Justice website of the solidarity group that formed to support the strikers.

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

MORE THAN a year after firing over 100 striking employees, Palermo Villa Inc. has finally agreed to return eight of those former strikers to their jobs, with back pay. The total amount of back pay awarded to the eight workers could total tens of thousands of dollars. Palermo's Pizza has also agreed to post a notice to employees that they will no longer violate federal labor law.

"As we have said before, Palermo's Pizza repeatedly violated our rights to join a union," said Raul de la Torre, organizing committee member of the Palermo Workers Union. "This agreement confirms that Palermo's used threats, intimidation, surveillance, discrimination and retaliation to deny the freedom to choose a union voice."

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, said:

Palermo's has finally been forced to confront the reality that they broke the law. They want Milwaukee to see them as a good corporate citizen, but this settlement is further evidence they violated the rights of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent workers who joined forces with immigrant workers to challenge unsafe conditions, low wages and mistreatment.

The only language Palermo understands is money, and today, they will have to apologize for violating workers' right to organize in the only language they understand. Palermo Villa now stands as a national example of why we need immigration reform that protects the rights of all workers against employers that exploit and profit from immigrant labor.

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THE SETTLEMENT agreement, negotiated as a result of charges brought by the Palermo Workers Union, requires Palermo Villa, Inc. to:

-- Immediately offer all eight employees the opportunity to return to their previous jobs;

-- Award a lump sum payment for back pay to all eight employees within two weeks;

-- Post a notice inside the factory explaining that Palermo's will commit to not breaking the law again when it comes to workers rights to form a union. The notice to current employees will also outline the terms of the settlement agreement, and must be posted in multiple languages for 60 days.

The settlement agreement vindicates employee claims that Palermo's Pizza violated federal labor laws meant to protect workers rights to form a union. Beyond illegal terminations, some of the other serious violations include:

-- Palermo's threatened employees with reprisals because of their union and/or protected concerted activities.

-- Palermo's told employees who were attempting to strike that they could not leave the facility, and in fact physically blocked the attempts of employees to exit the facility.

-- Palermo's threatened to discharge employees for engaging in protected concerted and/or union activities.

-- Palermo's created the impression that it was engaged in the surveillance of employees' union and/or protected concerted activities.

-- On or about June 1, 2012, and continuing until on or about June 8, 2012, and on multiple other dates set forth, Palermo's refused to allow employees to work and/or discharged them in retaliation for their actual and/or perceived union/and or protected concerted activities.

The United Steelworkers Union (USW) has been working closely with both the current employees inside Palermo's and with the fired immigrant workers. USW District 2 Director Mike Bolton described the settlement as both a positive development and a disappointment.

It took much too long to get even this small bit of justice for these workers. And unfortunately, they will be going back to jobs where union busters have created such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that a democratic election is not possible.

So for Palermo's to claim they want a union election is a travesty of justice--they know that 75 percent of employees already expressed support for a union when they signed a petition calling for union representation over than a year ago, and that most of those workers--more than 100 former employees--will never get to vote because they were fired for speaking out.

Although today's agreement will see eight fired employees receive full compensation for their lost wages and the opportunity to return to their jobs, numerous issues related to the labor dispute at Palermo Villa remain outstanding.

There is a pending NRLB settlement with BG Staffing, a temp agency that was the employer for numerous fired union supporters.

The NLRB is currently investigating recent charges that Palermo's illegally fired an African American employee who was engaged in pro-union activity at work.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is expected to open an investigation into Palermo's refusal to release federally mandated records of injuries which have been requested by a lawfully designated representative of numerous employees.

Palermo's has so far refused requests from elected officials to provide evidence that they fulfilled promises to create family supporting jobs with some of the $48 million in taxpayer money they have received in recent years, including loans they received via the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

First published at Slice of Justice.