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Palermo's Pizza Workers Strike

Pizza-maker and workers clash over immigration checks

Jun. 13, 2012
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Palermo's Pizza, located on Canal Street in the heart of the revitalized Menomonee Valley, has been hailed as an urban success story, a Milwaukee-run company that has chosen to commit to the city and local workers instead of moving its operations elsewhere.

But that positive image is being challenged by some of its own workers.

An estimated 70 to 100 Palermo's workers have been striking for more than a week to draw attention to what they say are poor working conditions and unfair labor practices.

They say the company provides an unsafe workplace at which workers have suffered injuries; pays low wages; and is using an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audit to intimidate immigrant workers.

The workers have a pending unfair labor practice complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about the company's use of the ICE audit to chill the employees' unionization efforts.

Riverwest Co-op Grocery and Café is boycotting Palermo's to support the workers' unionization effort.

Workers have been attempting to form an independent union of production workers since at least 2008, said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, which is supporting the organizing workers. She said the effort gelled in late 2011 and 2012.

"That's when they decided that what they needed was a contract, because after so many years of negotiating they needed something that was meaningful in trying to make change," Neumann-Ortiz said.

The NLRB has ordered a vote on unionization to take place July 6, although it hasn't been determined yet which workers will be able to participate in the election.

Palermo's has denied that it is mistreating its employees.

"The whole thing is a lie," said Chris Dresselhuys, Palermo's director of marketing, of the workers' accusations.

Dresselhuys contended that the unionization effort was undertaken because workers were told that their immigration problems would be solved if they joined the union.

He argued that striking employees have been "duped into taking an action based on promises that can't be kept."

Immigration and Organization

Workers say that the company has tried to thwart their efforts to organize, including displaying anti-union posters in the workplace and making it difficult to leave work when the strike was launched. They say 15 workers have lost their jobs because of the strike and that temporary workers have been hired in their place.

Dresselhuys countered that Palermo's posted statement on unionization went up and down with the NLRB's posters on the pending unionization. He said no workers were prevented from leaving the site to join the strike and that temp workers are hired to deal with ebbs and flows of production.

But perhaps the biggest source of conflict centers around a February 2011 ICE audit of employees' work status. A May 10, 2012, letter from ICE informed the company that based on the audit, 89 employees needed to re-validate the information they provided when they applied to work at Palermo's. If the workers did not provide the information, Palermo's could face civil fines and criminal penalties for continuing to employ them. Palermo's followed up with ICE and was informed that ICE's guidelines required the employees to provide the documentation within 10 days.

Dresselhuys said Palermo's reached out to Voces and the relevant workers to help them get their documentation in order, but didn't get a response.

But the workers and Voces say that Palermo's didn't need the information within 10 days and that Palermo's was using the ICE request to intimidate workers.

"We contacted ICE and ICE said that [the 10-day deadline] wasn't true, that it was mandated by the company and not ICE," said Voces spokesman Joe Shansky.

The workers then petitioned the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to say that the workers were in the midst of a labor dispute and that the immigration status checks shouldn't be conducted at this time, Shansky said.

"The NLRB agreed with us on that and ICE agreed to back off," Shansky said.

The 10-day deadline was Friday, June 8. As of this writing, ICE hasn't moved forward with any actions at Palermo's.

A Resolution in Sight?

The workers say they will return to work if they are reinstated and the immigration checks aren't conducted at this time.

On Tuesday, Dresselhuys said the workers hadn't made any attempt to resolve the issue. He said he wasn't aware that the workers had been interested in organizing and that the petition to create a union wasn't made until after ICE requested more information in May. He said Palermo's has an "excellent safety record" and is audited by a third party, which has given the company an A rating. He said each full-time employee has paid time off, insurance, a 401(k) and free food and can gather in nice common areas.

He said some of the workers affected by the ICE audit have been with the company for up to 10 years and had not expressed any desire to organize until the past few weeks.

"People that we care deeply about are being taken advantage of," Dresselhuys said. 


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