That’s Not Amore
August 2, 2012 11:06 am
Workers at Palermo’s pizza in Wisconsin have been on strike for nearly two months, after their attempts at unionization were besieged by a company crackdown on undocumented immigrants. The Palermo strike lies at the messy intersection of labor organizing and immigration enforcement, and may well dictate policies for years to come.
On May 27th, 150 Palermo’s workers — three quarters of the production force — filed a petition for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. Workers began unionization efforts in November of 2011, citing low-wages, high health insurance premiums and an abusive work environment as impetus for organizing.
Josh Eidelson writes a detailed account of what happened next for In These Times:
Workers first struck May 29, the same day that the company refused workers’ request for union recognition, began instructing workers to train replacements from a temp agency and issued letters to workers with a 28-day deadline to verify that they were authorized to work in the United States.
On May 30, workers filed a petition with the NLRB seeking an election to win union recognition as the “Palermo’s Workers Union.” In a meeting that day with workers and their supporters, the company announced that the window for reverifying work authorization would be reduced to 10 days. The next day, more workers went on strike, and a union attorney filed the first NLRB charges of illegal anti-union tactics against Palermo’s.
Palermo’s immigration enforcement tactic was stymied on June 7th, when U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it would suspend any crackdown on enforcement at the plant to avoid tainting the union election. Despite ICE’s unprecedented hands-off notice, Palermo issued terminations letters to 75 workers the very next day. The workers then filed further charges with the NLRB, citing illegal termination and intimidation of workers to sway the union election.
The ballot was originally scheduled by the NLRB for July 6th. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) attempted to get on the ballot alongside the United Steelworkers, who have been assisting with the organizing process. The UFCW intervention postponed the vote until July 27th, but the more recent NLRB charges alleging illegal worker firing and intimidation have postponed the union election indefinitely. The labor board is expected to issue a decision on Palermo’s anti-union tactics in late-August, and the delays may affect workers’ chances for a fair election (an agreement providing striking workers a vote in the union election is now void).
Unions are increasingly prioritizing immigrant workers groups for unionization, and companies like Palermo’s have gotten the message, saying that they will ask hardworking immigrants to “show their papers” if they want a union. Palermo’s, a company with a Horatio Alger-esque, “immigrants done good” origin story, claims that their hands are tied, and they are simply trying to maintain a legal workforce. Speaking of the company’s contradictory firings in response to the ICE’s blind eye, Palermo marketing director Chris Dresselhuys balks (or pretends to), saying, “Without any sort of clarity, what’s a little company like us supposed to do?” (Never mind the fact that ICE clearly stated they would suspend investigation until the union election ran its course).
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de La Frontera, an immigrant labor group working with Palermos’ workers states: ”This wasn’t really about immigration enforcement — it’s all about union-busting.”
In response to the strike and Palermo’s fierce opposition to the union, workers and their allies are pushing for a national boycott. Last Sunday, workers and students rallied at a Milwaukee Costco, the big-box retailer responsible for the bulk of Palermo’s sales. The call for a boycott was echoed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who said, “We want Costco to suspend their purchase of Palermo’s products until there’s a resolution to this conflict, [and] initiate an audit to identify changes needed to bring Palermo’s into compliance with Costco’s Supplier Code of Conduct.”
The striking workers remain unified for better conditions. Esperanza Garza, a production line worker on strike, told the New York Times that she earns just $9.30 an hour after 10 years of service, and Jorge Becker, a member of the Palermo Workers’ Union Organizing Committee, speaks of the need for a Palermo’s Workers Union in an editorial for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
Many workers at Palermo make little more than minimum wage, have no paid sick days and simply want respect, dignity and safety at work. Most of us are veteran Palermo employees. We never would have risked our jobs and incomes if the company were treating us fairly.
Image from here