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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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In Marketplace Commentary

There appears to be no movement toward ending the strike and the continual picket marches that take place at Palermo's Pizza in the Valley.

Ongoing Palermo's strike isn't good for anyone


Disputes between labor and management present difficulties for both sides, and rarely do both sides come out a winner.

I've seen this kind of thing happen first-hand. I went on strike against an employer and walked a picket line. In the end, we caved almost entirely on our demands and a short time later my employer was out of business. What happened was that our main competitor slid in while the strike disrupted our business and got an in with a bunch of our customers.

The strike and the fallout from it left me with a lot of questions of the value of organizing workers to strike against companies.

This is brought to mind as we approach the six-month anniversary of the relatively ugly strike against Palermo's Pizza, a local company that makes the best frozen pizza I ever had (although that really doesn't have a lot to do with this story).

Here's a little history. Workers at Palermo's started the process of trying to establish a union. As far as I can tell, the company didn't raise any stink about these efforts and after talking to several sources I'm pretty sure if the workers wanted to take a vote today on a union the company would support it. And if they voted for a union, the company wouldn't oppose it.

Shortly before the strike Palermo's fired 75 workers who were unable to provide documentation that they were legally eligible to work there. The issue arose at the direction of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department.

The workers then filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the workers had been illegally fired. The NLRB recently ruled against the workers and said that Palermo's did not violate the workers' rights when they were fired.

But there appears to be no movement toward ending this strike and the continual picket marches that take place at the company. And I think the reason there has been no progress is that the leadership of an organization called Voces de la Frontera has taken control of the strike and is pushing for some kind of sweeping victory, rather than just helping the workers get what they wanted: the right to take a union certification vote.

I want to make something perfectly clear. I support Latino rights and immigration reform. I think it should be easier for undocumented workers to become citizens. I don't like witch hunts or big fences at the border. When Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers I did not buy, nor eat, grapes.

What I don't like are strong-arm tactics. I don't like the fact that Voces had supporters go to grocery stores, take all the Palermo's products out of freezers, put them in shopping carts and then leave the store.

I don't like Voces pushing to have Costco stores throughout the nation pull Palermo products from its shelves.

This strike isn't really good for anybody. It causes some personal pain for Palermo executives but sales haven't been hurt at all. The people on strike are no closer to their goal of voting on a union than they were before the strike.

And the City of Milwaukee is a loser. If I'm a company executive looking to relocate, I would think twice about Wisconsin and Milwaukee with our violently split electorate and our inability or unwillingness to help bring an end to this strike.

There is a place here for our mayor, Tom Barrett, to get involved, but it took him forever – until after the NLRB ruling – to say he wanted to see a vote for the union take place at Palermo's. County Executive Chris Abele, however, did step in, siding with Palermo's, with whom he has worked on a variety of charitable and civic projects.

I think this strike could be over tomorrow if a woman named Christine Neumann-Ortiz, who heads Voces, would recognize that this is a very narrow issue and not some coordinated attack against Latinos.

I talked to her Tuesday and she said that her organization is designed to help Latino workers and that what she wanted was for the 75 workers to be hired back by Palermo's.

I asked her why she thought that was fair, especially in light of the NLRB decision that the workers' rights were not violated.

"I believe they were fired illegally, despite that decision," she said. "I want them reinstated and with back pay."

From Palermo's I got a written statement from the company president Giacomo Fallucca. In it he said, "The most important thing that could happen now is to let the workers' voices be heard and allow them to vote. Unfortunately, Voces is preventing that from happening. Palermo's is ready to accept the final result of a worker vote, whatever it would be."

I asked Neumann-Ortiz if she'd call off the strike if a union vote was taken at the company.

"No," she said. "Those workers need to get their jobs back and then they can vote in the election, too."

This is an example of the problem that arises when workers give up their role in a strike to some outside organizer. They are likely to get promises that won't be fulfilled. I'm sure the 75 workers have been told they will get their jobs back if the union is in place. No chance. Palermo's had to hire new workers to replace the undocumented ones and they aren't going to fire them just to bring the original workers back.

Palermo's has a lengthy history of treating its workers, who are mainly Latino, well and providing opportunities both within and outside the company. The pizza maker has an impressive record of community involvement and doesn't deserve to be caught up in somebody's struggle for sweeping social justice.

Granted, many Latinos in this country are denied rights to which they should be entitled. But there is virtually no evidence that this is the situation here.

Neumann-Ortiz has obviously done a lot to advance the cause of Latinos in this community, but her continued hard-line stance in this dispute may well have a negative impact on her efforts.

What would be best for this community is for Neumann-Ortiz to back off, let the workers vote on the union issue, and turn her attention to real problems faced by Latino workers.

But I don't see that happening with an organization so bent on throwing bombs and scorching the earth over an issue that could best be described as manufactured.


Talkbacks

AndrewJ | Nov. 30, 2012 at 1:33 p.m. (report)

Excellent article, Dave! You spelled out the arguments from both sides perfectly. So perfect that anybody who reads this will be able to clearly see that Neumann-Ortiz is not looking out for anybody except the Voces group, and the national image they are trying to garner. If she really gave a rip about the 75 workers that were laid off, she should take it up with the agency, or the man ultimately in charge of that agency, that initiated the terminations. She can find him at: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20500.

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littletinyfish | Nov. 30, 2012 at 9:50 a.m. (report)

Thanks for the update to this situation. I'm sure there are a lot of subtleties in this situation that could fill a Ken Burns documentary, but this seems to give a pretty good idea of what's happening.

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