Boycott Targets Costco as Pizza Factory Strike Hits Three-Month Mark

Three months into their strike for union recognition, the immigrant workers of the Palermo pizza factory in Milwaukee say the boss is feeling the effects of their boycott. Photo: Brian Rothgerry.

Three months into their strike for union recognition, the immigrant workers of the Palermo pizza factory in Milwaukee say the boss is feeling the effects of their boycott.

Last week Palermo’s CEO flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka. Giacoma Falluca had requested the meeting after the AFL-CIO officially endorsed a national boycott of Palermo's frozen pizza last month.

Falluca asked Trumka to press for a union election at the plant, which the National Labor Relations Board has postponed while it investigates allegations of unfair labor practices. A vote held now would exclude strikers, with the majority of votes cast by replacement workers.

“The AFL-CIO made it quite clear, through President Trumka, that they believe in union elections but not in unfair elections,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the director of the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, which has aided the Palermo workers. “This is a rigged election because the strikers do not have the right to vote.”

After workers demanded recognition for their independent Palermo Workers Union this spring, Palermo refused and retaliated by hiring temporary employees to be trained by the workers. The pizza factory sent employees a letter falsely stating that the company had 10 days to collect workers’ immigration papers for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit, though ICE had issued no deadline.

Realizing the company intended to replace them, 150 of the 223 employees walked out on strike June 1 and began a boycott. The company fired around 90 of the strikers and hired replacements.

“Palermo’s has always told us since the very beginning that we're just one big, happy family,” said Raul de la Torre, a striker. “And the moment it wasn't convenient for them anymore, what did they do? They just booted us out the door.”

Building a Bigger Boycott

Anticipating that their strike would be undermined by replacements, the Palermo workers called for a national boycott of their company’s pizza, which is sold under the Kirkland brand at Costco. The wholesale retailer is Palermo’s biggest customer, and the aim of the boycott is to get Costco to force its supplier to settle the dispute. “We need a dialogue with Palermo’s, and until that happens, then we're going to continue to boycott,” de la Torre said.

The boycott started as a petition but has escalated into actions nationwide, many of them at Costco locations. Costco’s supplier code of conduct includes “protecting the working rights and safety of the people who produce the merchandise it sells.” Costco has remained largely silent but is investigating Palermo’s labor record at the union’s request.

A week of action was held August 20-27 in 20 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle, with help from the Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO, immigrant rights organizations, and United Students Against Sweatshops.

In July, strikers voted to affiliate their union with the Steelworkers if they win. The USW has been providing organizing and campaign staff as well as helping to coordinate the national boycott.

At an action in Grafton, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, dozens of allies gathered with workers on street corners near Costco. A giant puppet, which in the past year had represented anti-union Governor Scott Walker, roamed the crowd, refashioned as “Chairman Falluca.”

Grafton is a largely conservative town. Though some customers yelled out the number of Palermo's pizzas they'd bought, as many people honked in support of the workers.

In a later action in Grafton, while workers distributed flyers outside the store, Costco members entered to ask for printouts totaling their purchases over two years. They then left behind carts of unpurchased items, demonstrating the loss of their business.

The union and its allies plan to keep escalating. They see the CEO’s request to meet with Trumka as a sign their persistent campaign and boycott are having an effect.

At a press conference held outside the factory August 31, Sheila Cochran, secretary of the local labor council, pledged that the local and national AFL-CIO would not walk away. Cochran criticized Palermo for not respecting workers' rights even though the company received $20 million in public money to build its factory in Milwaukee.

“We're going to continue until we reach every city that has Costco, where Costco sells their products, until they see that they need to stop selling Palermo's pizza,” de la Torre said.

Rigged Elections

The workers spent years organizing a union in response to conditions such as no paid sick days, long work weeks, and severe injuries due to high production speeds.

“If one pizza went by, the message from them was, ‘the pizza is more important than your body and your health and your safety,'” said striker Laura Torres of the conditions that led to injuries such as severed fingers.

Voces has helped the workers to document unsafe working conditions and harassment at the factory since 2008, educating them on their workplace rights and helping them organize.

Once the boss announced the 10-day deadline for the immigration audit, the Palermo workers contacted the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor. Their union made history when, for the first time, ICE halted an audit in order not to interfere in a labor dispute.

The union also filed an unfair labor practice with the Labor Board, citing tainted election conditions as grounds for bypassing an election. The Palermo workers are asking the board to exercise the rarely used option of ordering the employer to recognize the union and reinstate fired workers, and expect a ruling soon.

The initial date to vote on the Palermo Workers Union was July 6. The date was pushed back when Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473 intervened and was placed on the ballot as well.

Falluca still refuses to meet with the workers, even after Trumka’s urging. Strikers said the company’s unwillingness makes them all the more determined to press their boycott.

“They don't care about the fact that we have families that depend on us,” de la Torre said. “That actually works as very much of a motivation for us. We believe in justice, and we believe that justice is on our side.”



Dawn Tefft is a Teachers union organizer in Wisconsin.