Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of when about 100 workers went on strike at Palermo’s Villa because management would not recognize their newly formed union, Palermo Workers Union. Workers, community allies and faith leaders led an 18-mile march from the Palermo factory in Milwaukee to co-owner Angelo Falluca’s house in Mequon, Wis.
The march lasted about 12 hours with over 200 people joining at different points throughout the day. About 50 community organizations and unions endorsed the march, including Voces de la Frontera, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), American Federation of Teachers, local 212, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), Service Employee International Union (SEIU) and many others.
Workers and allies held a candlelight vigil to close out the march at Falluca’s house. A priest from MICAH led a prayer for the workers, their families and the management at Palermo’s, calling for the comapany to negotiate and recognize the union. A leader from Palermo Workers Union and the priest from MICAH tried delivering letters of concern to Falluca, but were blocked at his driveway by security guards.
Workers at the Palermo’s Pizza company began the battle for recognition of their union from pizza distributor Palermo’s Villa Inc. more than a year ago. They went on strike on June 1, 2012 for safer working conditions, better wages and paid sick days at the Milwaukee factory. Since then, workers, students and community allies have kept pressure on Palermo’s to recognize the union, calling for a national boycott of Palermo’s.
Before workers walked out, Palermo’s contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to do an immigration status probe of the workers, the majority of whom are immigrants. ICE halted the probe after determining it had been contacted in the middle of a labor dispute and that it would be inappropriate for their agency to intervene. After the probe was canceled, Palermo’s fired several of the workers who had gone on strike for allegedly being undocumented.
That mass firing was challenged through a claim filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), arguing workers were illegally fired because of union organizing efforts. The NLRB sided with the workers, ruling that Palermo’s must rehire at least 11 of the workers who were fired.
Palermo’s has yet to contact the workers to offer them their positions back.
However, another unfair labor practice claim — that Palermo’s illegally used the ICE audit as a method of intimidation to stop unionization effort — was struck down by the local NLRB. Workers appealed this decision but it was reaffirmed Tuesday by a national NLRB ruling.
Community activists have pointed to Palermo’s use of ICE during the dispute as an example of a broken immigration system in which companies are able to exploit and intimidate employees based on immigration status when they stand up for their right to be treated with dignity in the workplace and union organizing efforts.
The strike and boycott is supported by unions, elected officials, students and community allies who joined workers for a weekly picket line in front of Palermo’s last summer. Organizers then shifted their efforts to informational pickets in front of Costco stores in the Milwaukee and Madison areas.
Organizers have demanded that Costco stop purchasing and selling Palermo’s Pizza until the union is recognized. Costco purchases over half of the pizzas produced at the Milwaukee factory while maintaining a public image of being the “anti-Walmart,” a discount store that provides good wages and benefits to its employees while being a socially conscious and labor friendly business.
Workers have repeatedly called on upper management at Costco to drop Palermo’s, even traveling to the corporate headquarters in Seattle to meet with the CEO. So far, Costco has not stopped carrying Palermo’s products — the workers say they will continue picketing until Costco does.
Many of the workers receive benefits from a strike fund largely organized and funded by the United Steel Workers (USW) union, which has been involved since the beginning. A southern California USW local, representing car washers, has been giving monthly donations since last August. Many one-time donations have come from other union locals and community members, as well.
This generosity has allowed for workers to sustain their living, though the strike has caused hardship for the workers and their families. The maximum weekly amount of money allowed to each worker is $200, though sometimes there is no money in the fund and they must go without.
“We struggle to feed our families,” said Raul de la Torre, Palermo’s Workers Union organizer. “It is difficult to survive financially.”
Torre says though it is difficult, the workers continue in this struggle not only for themselves, but for all workers’ rights to unionize and also for the non-unionized workers hired by Palermo’s to replace the fired workers. The majority of replacement workers are refugees from Burma.
“Palermo’s calls for a specific worker to come to their factory and those are mainly immigrants and refugees right now from Burma,” says Victoria Alvaraz of USW. “It is because they know that they can’t necessarily defend themselves the way a worker could that speaks English and knows their legal rights as workers in the US. These are practices that they do intentionally; this is not an accident. It’s not that immigrants or refugees love working at Palermo’s, it’s that they have little to no option and will take what they can get.”
Recently, a replacement worker got into an accident on a machine, losing three of his fingers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company over $40,000 for safety and health violations.
Workers on strike are concerned about the health and safety of the replacements as they allege Palermo’s has not improved safety standards, one of the reasons they went on strike.
Elected officials are also supporting the efforts of the strike. Milwaukee Aldermen and State Assembly members have publicly sided with the Palermo’s worker’s union to be recognized by management at the plant.
Immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera has helped through fundraisers, support on the picket line and for workers and their families.
Students at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee have ongoing campaigns on their campuses to pressure the schools to drop their contract with Palermo’s, through flyers, petitions and email- and phone blasts to school administration.
Students at UW-Madison occupied their Chancellor’s office to pressure administration to drop the contract with Palermo’s. Twelve students were arrested during the sit-in. Supporters then surrounded the police transport vehicles in a show of solidarity with the students. This sit in comes after a decision last November by the Labor Licensing Policy Committee that recommended that the UW school drop its contract with Palermo’s.
Students at UW-Milwaukee held a similar action in their Chancellor’s office after they were successful in pressuring their student Senate to pass a resolution to terminate the contract with Palermo’s. There were no arrests at this action. At the end of the semester, students occupied the pizza stand that sells Palermo’s in the student union. Because of the occupation, administration at UWM has closed the pizza stand down through the summer semester.
Union organizers and community members plan to continue this campaign until management at Palermo’s recognizes and negotiates with the Palermo Workers Union.