Boycott Palermo’s, Say Milwaukee Pizza Factory Strikers

Palermo's Pizza factory workers in Milwaukee have been on strike since June 1 to demand recognition of their independent union. Their strike and boycott have given the labor community bruised by Governor Scott Walker's recall victory a welcome rallying point. Photo: Jenna Pope.

The eight-year-old daughter of a striking Palermo’s Pizza factory worker tried to deliver a petition last week with 15,000 signatures pledging to boycott the Milwaukee-based frozen pizza company.

Daniella Benitez was turned away by police, who said only one adult would be allowed on the premises. She came back with her mother and a local pastor and left pizza boxes filled with pages of signatures at the feet of the unreceptive officers.

Since workers filed a petition for recognition May 29, the company has aggressively tried to bust their independent Palermo's Workers Union, but the strikers, mostly immigrants, are gaining ground by cultivating relationships across Wisconsin labor and community groups and by recruiting to their national boycott.

Workers are asking supporters not to buy Palermo's products until the company recognizes their union and to visit their website, www.sliceofjustice.com, to sign the petition or donate to their strike fund.

FORMING A NEW UNION

The union movement in Milwaukee was denied a lengthy mourning of the recall election results that saw Wisconsin's anti-union governor re-elected, when the Palermo’s workers began striking June 1 to demand recognition and to protest unfair labor practices.

Joe Shansky of the immigration rights group Voces de la Frontera said the struggle had energized the labor community with a focal point to rally around. “Morale was kinda low here, understandably, or it's assumed to be,” he said. “And these workers are showing that organizing in the workplace is alive and well, and it's not a good time to be messing with unions in Wisconsin."

Severe injuries and work weeks of up to 90 hours led Palermo's factory workers to form a union.

“There were horrible accidents like getting fingers chopped off. Just horrible working conditions,” said striker Roberto Silva.

Rampant health and safety issues result from insufficient training in operating the factory's heavy machinery, a lack of paid sick days, and sick and injured employees being told to return to work. Workers who miss three or more days of work in six months, even with a doctor's excuse, can be fired, leading many of them to handle food while sick.

When 150 of the 223 workers walked out, they began a boycott to pressure Palermo's to recognize their union. Palermo's pizza is sold under both their brand name and undivulged private labels at Costco and other supermarkets. The company’s products are available in Canada and in all but six states, so a large-scale boycott is key to interrupting profits.

Palermo's retaliated by firing at least 90 of the 150 striking workers. Some were allowed to return to work and others got new jobs, but the majority remain on strike. They were replaced with workers unskilled in operating the machinery, and production is ongoing but slowed.

The company also claimed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had given management a 10-day deadline to collect immigration papers for an audit, though no such deadline existed. The company posted misleading statements on its website and signs outside the factory, implying that employees were being fooled into thinking a union could grant them citizenship. One sign outside the plant read, “A union will not change your status.”

Anti-union signs were also posted inside the plant. “They had materials saying unions are bad, saying the best relationship is between employee and employer,” said Silva.

Workers responded by informing the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor about their organizing and by filing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. DHS has a policy of not overtly interfering in labor disputes, so the agency stopped the ICE audit.

The NLRB is investigating the unfair labor practice. The union argues that the company's acceleration of the ICE audit and its hiring of replacement employees are grounds for the NLRB to require the employer to recognize the union, reinstate fired workers, and begin bargaining.

Employers whose unfair labor practices obstruct fair elections can be forced by the NLRB to recognize a union, though this rarely happens. Palermo's workers feel they have a strong case because the employer has so consistently flouted the law.

The NLRB also set July 6 for a union vote. But the Food and Commercial Workers union claimed jurisdiction and asked the Board to be added to the ballot, which pushed the date back to July 27. The workers and their supporters said UFCW Local 1473 didn’t have a base of support before it intervened. The local declined to comment.

The company claims that 82 replacement workers are eligible to vote and that strikers are ineligible, and the union has updated its unfair labor practice charge to reflect this development.

Five weeks into the strike, workers are feeling the effects of the delay. Fundraisers and online donations through the union's website have netted $50,000 for the strike fund, but they will need to continuously raise money for the duration of their strike.

SUPPORT LIGHTS UP

Workers picket outside the factory twice a day, six days a week during shift changes. They're seeing increasing support from union members and community allies who frequently swell the numbers on the picket line despite sweltering temperatures.

Service Employees, Steelworkers, Teachers (AFT), and AFSCME are among regular supporters. AFT Local 212 at Milwaukee Area Technical College held a fundraiser that netted $5,000.

Mike Rosen, Local 212’s president, connected the struggle to the long-running battle against Governor Scott Walker and his legislation that stripped public workers of their bargaining rights. “We understand that an injury to one is an injury to all,” Rosen said. “Their fight for union recognition is just a continuation of the fight we've been fighting.”

National labor is also on board. The AFL-CIO and the Steelworkers are providing much-needed organizing help. The union is receiving less conventional aid, too.

The Overpass Light Brigade—a group of Milwaukee community activists who recently held LED lights spelling out “Recall Walker” on overpasses—has been lighting up the night with “Boycott Palermo’s.” The Brigade’s message is especially useful in reminding consumers that Palermo’s is served at Brewers baseball games.

“Their signs really energized the people that are on strike,” said Voces’ Shansky. “The workers and their families joined the OLB on the bridge and held the lights, and it really gave them a sense that this fight was much bigger than them.”

Voces has been assisting the Palermo’s workers with issues like unsafe working conditions and discrimination since 2008. Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said that petition signatures gathered all across the country show a growing awareness of the boycott, but that it will need to expand if the workers are to win.

Silva said workers gain hope from the widespread signatures, but whether they are able to outlast management is the most important factor. “There is justice in the workers' union,” Silva said, “and then there's corporations and money and power. They can spend all the money they have to win this battle.

“There's five weeks of strike now. I thought support for the strike was eventually going to go down, but it's actually been getting stronger.” Palermo's workers insist, "No Justice, No Piece!"



Dawn Tefft is an AFT organizer in Wisconsin.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #400, July 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.