Workers at a Milwaukee pizza factory on Monday launched a nationwide boycott of Palermo’s frozen pizza products. The workers traveled to Middleton, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison to urge, Costco, the nation’s largest retailer of Palermo products, to pull Palermo and Kirkland pizza products from its shelves.
Some Palermo workers have been on strike since June when the company fired workers who were taking part in a union organizing drive.
“We are taking our message beyond the workplace to consumers and the community because all workers have a right to a voice on the job and safe workplace” said Raul De la Torres, a striking worker. “It’s a shame the company still refuses to recognize the worker’s concerns and hear the voices of consumers.”
In May, Palermo workers gathered 162 signatures on a petition for union representation, about 80 percent of the eligible workforce. The petition drive was organized by an independent union, the Palermo Workers Union, with the help of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant and worker rights center.
On May 30, a delegation of workers and supporters met with Palermo management to discuss the possibility of the company recognizing the union and to review the process for verifying signatures.
The company subsequently fired 90 workers who did not respond to a company request to provide immigration documents. After the firings, workers went on strike.
The firings may have sparked the strike, but its cause runs deeper.
New workers work for low pay without benefits. Workers with more tenure receive better pay and some benefits but their work is unsafe. One common grievance unites both–the company does not treat them with respect.
“The company would speed up production faster and faster, which led to jams,” said Alberto, a striker who didn’t give his last name. “One day my sleeve got caught in the machine, sliced open my pinky, and I almost lost two fingers. I was in so much pain, but the company wanted me to go back to work almost immediately.”
Excessive line speed, unsafe conditions, and a general lack of respect caused Palermo workers to contact Voces de la Frontera in 2008. With the help of Voces, the workers slowly began laying the foundation for their union, which became a full-fledged organizing drive about a year ago.
The company says that it didn’t fire the workers for organizing a union but rather because of a notice that the company received earlier this year from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) questioning the immigration status of some of its employees.
The company, however, didn’t act on the ICE notice until after the workers presented their union petition and asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election.
The strike has received a wide range of support from both community and labor groups.
On July 2, Rev. Joe Ellwanger of the Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MCAH) led a delegation of Palermo workers and supporters to the company headquarters where he delivered a petition supporting the workers signed by 15,000 people. Those signatures were gathered in less than a month.
“We’ve seen an incredible outpouring of support from union members, faith leaders, customers, and retailers,” said De la Torre in a statement about the July 2 demonstration.
Some labor unions have become actively involved in supporting the strike. AFSCME Local 60, which represents municipal workers in Dane County, organized a food drive for the strikers.
The South Central (Wisconsin) Federation of Labor with more than 100 affiliated unions, is urging its members to donate food and money to the strike fund.
The strikers have also received support from the Milwaukee Labor Council, the United Steelworkers, the Ironworkers Union, the Milwaukee Teachers Association, and other unions.
A union election was scheduled to take place in early July, but it has been postponed. The workers remain on strike and hope that the national boycott will get the fired workers reinstated and their union recognized. Others think that the strike has wider significance.
“The Palermo workers’ struggle is a struggle of national significance,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voces executive director. “In the wake of the recall election (of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) that was bought and paid for by billionaire contributions this struggle reminds us that you cannot buy people’s dignity.”