Records Show Palermo’s Strikers’ Safety Concerns Are Real

While it’s not unusual for factories to have accidents, workers out on strike at frozen pizza maker Palermo’s are saying that the way the company deals with the accidents has led them to go out on strike against the Milwaukee-based food company. The National Labor Relations Board has ordered the company to hold a secret-ballot union election next month.

The UpTake has confirmed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has twice fined Palermo’s for safety violations that resulted in workers having a body part amputated. In at least one of those cases where a worker had his fingernails ripped off, the worker says the company asked him to return to the job by the next day and then battled with him because he wanted to be examined by a physician other than the company doctor.

Palermo’s workers are now in their 10th day of a strike. Workers are out on strike because management of Palermo’s Pizza refuse to recognize their newly formed union as a legitimate bargaining unit, though the strikers say about 80 percent of workers support the formation of the union.

Labor law allows Palermo’s to recognize the union without the need for a secret ballot election if more than 50 percent of workers support the effort. Strikers say the company has refused and instead management have resorted to several tactics to break the union organizing efforts including bringing in replacement workers, threatening to check immigration status of employees, threat of termination of employment and temp workers have been threatened with being blacklisted for joining the picket line.

The newly formed independent union, Palermo’s Worker’s Union, filed a case with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union recognition.

The NLRB has set a secret ballot election on July 6 for official union recognition.

Over the past 10 days, striking workers say they have been able to slow down production at the Milwaukee based company at 3301 South Canal Street, near Miller Park. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) has backed down from the initial threat of checking employees immigration status; adding credence to the workers claim that the immigration issue was simply a tactic of management to scare union organizers.

A press release from the company calls the strike “a campaign of misinformation intended to generate ill will and punitive action against Palermo’s, its employees and customers has been initiated by a small group of activists.” However, the company has not commented on the specific complaints raised by workers.

Employees decided to unionize after a new policy was implemented last fall, that if a worker misses 3 to 4 days of work, they will automatically be terminated, regardless if they can provide a doctors note. Strikers say there are currently no paid sick days for employees, though many employees are directly handling food products to make frozen pizza distributed throughout the US, including businesses such as Woodman’s, Costco, and Wal-Mart. Palermo’s is the only brand of pizza served at Milwaukee Brewers Stadium, Miller Park.

A partial list of distributors of Palermo’s Pizza can be found here and a  zip code search here for localized results of the about 2,000 distributors of Palermo’s Pizza.

Employees are also concerned about the number of hours they work a week, which can be up to 80-90 hours, according to Roberto Silva, a striking employee.

General workplace safety is also a primary concern for workers who want their union to be recognized. Three separate incidents of worker amputation have occurred at Palermo’s Pizza since 2008, which Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has required Palermo’s to pay $7,000 in fines for two of the three amputations. Case numbers of these OSHA complaints are 311397129, 313529109 and 313530669.

In the above video, Manuel Cueves describes his workplace injury. One of his finger nails was ripped off by a machine. After a visit to the emergency room, he was told to return to work the next day by management and simply use his other hand and arm to complete his job duties. Cueves also discusses the battle he went through to be able to see his doctor of choice, rather than a company chosen doctor, as well as having the company pay for his physical therapy needed from the accident. He says the reaction of the company to his injury, of get back to work immediately, is not uncommon to workers at Palermo’s.

Other unions have begun to endorse the Palermo’s workers strike. Supporting unions include American Federation of Teachers (AFT) locals 212 (Milwaukee Area Technical College-Milwaukee) and 2169 (Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association), National Steelworkers Union, National Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Ironworkers Local 8, National American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals local 5011 (Sheboygan) and Industrial Workers of the World Industrial Union Branch 560 (Madison). Riverwest Cooperative Grocery Store, located in the Riverwest neighborhood in Milwaukee, is the first business to officially declare a boycott of Palermo’s Pizza from being carried in their store.

Management continues efforts to discredit the organizing efforts of the union and has started to terminate employment for some workers, however organizers say they will not stop with this struggle.  In the video below, Laura Porres discusses how the strike impacts her and her family and why she continues with the struggle of union recognition.

The battle over unions in the public sector is the reason Wisconsin’s political landscape blew up in the spring of 2011. Governor Scott Walker introduced and eventually passed legislation that eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers. A long recall campaign began as an effort to undue this legislation, as well as large cuts in education, healthcare, public transit; social services in general. Walker survived the recall effort, winning by a margin of five points.

The intent of Walker’s anti-union legislation, Act 10, was to pit public sector workers against private sector workers and to essentially get rid of unions, as stated in this video: 

The Palermo’s workers struggle indicates that the struggle for workers rights and union recognition is not over in Wisconsin.

Tracey Pollock

Tracey Pollock, a native of River Falls, Wis., studied journalism at UW-River Falls and finished her education at UW-Milwaukee with a focus in sociology. She is interested in covering social justice issues and shedding light on issues in a way that corporate media will not undertake. Pollock lives in Milwaukee, where generations of her family have resided. She enjoys the local music scene, bicycling and camping.

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