Palermo’s Factory Workers in Milwaukee

In 2007, Cesar was operating the Multivac machine that wraps frozen pizzas produced at Palermo’s Pizza factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Like most of the others in the factory, he worked seven days a week—the 9 pm to 7 am shift, earning $7.25 an hour—for one of the largest frozen pizza manufacturers in the nation.

According to Cesar, he had complained to his supervisor for a week that the equipment wasn’t functioning properly—it wasn’t sealing correctly and he also needed to pull the plastic out of the machine by hand. He told me the company’s lack of responsiveness was par for the course.

“They don’t want the lines to stop,” he said. “They keep running the machines even when they’re not working right, until the machine really breaks down, then they’ll bring a mechanic in.”

For Cesar, Palermo’s emphasis on production over safety came at a great personal cost. When he was pulling the plastic out of the Mulitvac his finger got wrapped in it. He couldn’t untangle it before the knife came down to slice the plastic. He said his right index finger “was cut almost completely through, just hanging by my skin.” The finger was reattached at the hospital, but he’s still unable to move the part that was severed, and on cold days it’s particularly painful.

He returned to his job soon after the injury, but the breaking point for Cesar came in 2008. He had a supervisor who regularly told workers, “Here, the only thing we do is as my balls say it should be done. And whoever doesn’t like it, the door’s right there, they can leave immediately.”

“Those were always his words,” said Cesar. “That was around the time when people started to come to Voces [de la Frontera] to get help because there was tremendous pressure on people.”

Voces is a low-wage worker and immigrant rights center in Milwaukee, and Palermo workers complained to organizers about wage issues, health and safety violations, lack of paid sick days and a generally intimidating environment. The workers say they had gotten nowhere—repeatedly—in their efforts to get management to address their concerns.

Palermo’s declined to respond to the specific allegations raised in this article, but Chris Dresselhuys, director of marketing, e-mailed a general response.

“Palermo’s has a long history of respecting its employees, their safety and well-being, paying a competitive wage and providing an excellent benefits package,” said Dresselhuys. “Any suggestion to the contrary is insulting and without merit.… The baseless allegations made against Palermo’s represent a pattern of deception and obfuscation that is designed to harm our company, our employees and community.”

Raul, who operated a cheese shredder, has a decidedly different take.

He said he complained many times to supervisors and management about the speed of his production line. Thirteen workers were supposed to produce forty pizzas per minute, but five members of his team were often moved to a different line because the shop was understaffed. He also worried that the shredder didn’t have the capacity to handle the volume of cheese necessary to produce at that speed, so it often shorted out, forcing him to insert his hand and he feared electrocution. In addition, there was an ongoing problem with the floors—the drains clogged so people were often working in standing water mixed with oily ingredients.

“You’d be walking in water, people fell almost daily,” said Raul. “And their response was to take you to get drug-tested. It was offensive.”

Raul said he consistently raised these issues with supervisors and management for the three years he worked at Palermo’s. For that, he was branded “a big troublemaker” and someone who didn’t work hard. But he was hardly alone. Many complained of the lack of sick days and needing to work when they were ill. According to the workers, there was an unwritten rule that if a worker took three days off in six months he or she would be fired.

Emilio and Maria both worked at the factory for many years and have a 3-year-old girl. After seven years, Maria earned $9.05 per hour, working seven days a week.

“If we had a medical appointment, we were afraid to take it. If we wanted to set up an interview with a social worker for help, we couldn’t do it because we didn’t want to lose our jobs,” said Maria. “If I did make an appointment they would question what it was about. I always had to bring some kind of proof of what I was doing.”

By November 2011, the Palermo workers had had enough. They decided they wanted to form a union and turned to Voces for legal assistance.

“We were tired of just hearing [from the company], ‘Okay, we’ll see what we can do for you,’ and that’s it,” said Daniel, who had worked for Palermo’s for five years as a machine operator, a production line lead, and doing maintenance work. “We deserve something better than that.”

On May 27 of this year, 178 Palermo’s employees—about three-fourths of the company’s production workers—signed petitions authorizing an independent union, the Palermo Workers Union, to act as their collective bargaining representative.

This is when things went from ugly to uglier.

Two days later, the workers asked Palermo’s to recognize the union. The company refused, and also said that eighty-nine of the workers needed to reverify their immigration status within twenty-eight days because of an audit by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to the workers, they were also told to train a large number of temporary workers who had been brought into the factory that day. In response, the workers engaged in a brief work stoppage to protest their treatment.

The next day, a delegation of Palermo workers, elected officials, religious leaders and Voces staff met with company officials. The delegation was informed by the company that ICE had shortened the twenty-eight-day reverification process to just ten days.

But the United Steelworkers contacted the local ICE office on the workers’ behalf and were told by the supervisory agent that ICE hadn’t given Palermo’s a specific deadline to reverify immigration status at all—not twenty-eight days, not ten days—no date.

“So we caught them on that lie—which showed this clearly wasn’t about immigration, it was about union-busting,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces.

In his official statement, Dresselhuys insisted that “the situation is the result of an investigation initiated by ICE” that “determined that some employees were ineligible to work” in the United States.

“Palermo’s cooperated with ICE and obeyed the law,” he said.

The AFL-CIO petitioned ICE to suspend the audit until the labor dispute and union election were complete, asserting that it was being used to threaten the workers’ right to self-organize—a right protected no matter one’s immigration status.

The workers also became aware that the company had retained attorney Robert Simandl, whose online profile touts his “extensive experience in…advising employers in maintaining union-free status.” A poster went up in the factory that discussed “external organizations and the way [they] may negatively influence the work environment at Palermo’s,” including: “interfering with our employees in their communication with the company”; “flexibility to schedule paid time off or vacation days may be lost”; and “you will be paying an external organization to communicate for you.”

On June 1, the workers say they arrived at the factory to find that temporary workers had once again been brought in. They called a strike, with workers from the second and third shifts starting the picket line.

According to a number of accounts, when workers from the first shift tried to join the strike, doors were locked, supervisors blocked exits and workers were told they couldn’t leave and needed to return to work. Some exited through emergency doors. One worker said he was grabbed by a company vice president and told he would be fired if he left the building. According to Voces, only when the organization called the police were the remaining workers permitted to leave the building, with approximately 150 workers in all joining the picket line.

Six days later, on June 7, ICE decided to suspend the reverification process until the labor dispute was resolved.

“ICE recognized that there was a legitimate labor conflict going on,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “That was a first, and a tremendous victory for workers and immigrant workers in the United States.”

Despite ICE’s decision, Palermo’s sent termination notices the following day to seventy-five workers on the “suspect document list.” In essence, the company unilaterally accelerated the reverification process and fired the workers even though their immigration status is still yet to be determined. Additionally, Neumann-Ortiz said, Palermo’s “permanently replaced” any permanent workers and “verbally fired” temp workers who supported the strike.

The National Relations Labor Board (NLRB) then set a July 6 date for an election to determine if the majority of workers wanted to recognize the Palermo Workers Union. In a move that doesn’t at all seem to be in the interests of the Palermo workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) asked to be placed on the ballot as well. That postponed the election until July 27, allowing the company time to hire more replacement workers—eighty-two in all—potentially diluting what was initially a very pro-Palermo Workers Union voting pool. (The UFCW declined to comment for this article.)

The union vote is now once again delayed as the NLRB weighs the Unfair Labor Practices charges against Palermo’s. Voces and the Palermo Workers Union are asserting that the election process is now so contaminated that the NLRB should order immediate reinstatement of the fired workers and back pay, as well as immediate negotiations on a new contract. Neumann-Ortiz also said they are requesting that the company take direction from ICE on the reverification process, so that Palermo’s doesn’t “continue to use ICE as a tool to threaten workers.”

For its part, Palermo’s denies any union-busting effort.

“We will continue to have a fact-based discussion with our workers and provide accurate information to help those voting to make an informed decision,” said Dresselhuys. “We will also continue to adhere to all NLRB procedures and guidelines as we move toward a vote.”

A decision from the NLRB on the Unfair Labor Practices charges is expected in mid-August. If the NLRB decides the charges have merit, it could order an administrative trial, ask a court to reinstate the strikers immediately or even order the company to bargain with the union right away.

In the meantime, today marks the sixty-fourth day of the strike. There is a strike fund to help workers who haven’t been able to find other jobs and are still active in the campaign. The most recent fund distribution was divided among sixty-seven workers. Neumann-Ortiz said contributions to the strike fund are “desperately needed.”

The Palermo workers, union members, community leaders and students from the United States Student Association (USSA) also launched a national boycott of Palermo’s on Sunday, asking Costco to pull the company’s products from its shelves. According to the Palermo Workers Union, more than 50 percent of Palermo’s frozen pizza sales are to Costco, and organizations around the country are holding “informational pickets” outside of Costco stores, asking that Palermo’s sales be halted until the workers are reinstated without retaliation. The boycott will then focus on Safeway and Kroger, the next two largest retailers of Palermo’s pizza.

Boycott organizers also say that for the public this isn’t just an ethical matter of speaking out on how low-wage workers are treated, but an economic one—about how tax dollars are put to use. In the past five years, Palermo’s has received approximately $20 million in tax subsidies, construction financing and public bonds from city, state and federal sources.

Palermo’s defends its record in the community.

“We have demonstrated a commitment to the community and support numerous charities and nonprofit groups in a variety of different ways,” said Dresselhuys.

As the strike continues, increasing economic pressures have led to moments of tension between some of the workers, but these moments are the exception rather than the rule.

“We’ve all worked very honorably at this company and all we are asking for is that our rights be respected,” said Maria.

“The only right we had was to do what they told us to do,” said Cesar. “For all that’s been accumulating in the time we’ve been working there—it’s given us the strength to fight as far as we can. And the only fight we have with the company now is that they respect the worker.”

Note: The names of these workers have been changed, or last names withheld, to protect their identities.

The Houston Community and Houston Janitors

As I’ve reported previously, janitors on strike in Houston are demanding a raise to $10 an hour, phased in over the next three years. Currently, 3,200 janitors are paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually, despite cleaning the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell, JPMorgan Chase, and others in the “City of Millionaires.”

The cleaning contractors have countered with an offer of a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years. Even Houston Mayor Annise Parker recently said that the contractors’ stance “has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience.”

Fifteen community and labor activists at a recent protest in downtown Houston’s energy corridor clearly agreed with Mayor Parker. They locked arms, sat down, and blocked traffic at a major intersection surrounded by high-rises. They were arrested and spent the next twenty-four hours in jail.

“We were the only gray-haired ones,” said Dave Atwood, describing himself and his wife, Priscilla.

Dave is a 71-year-old retired chemical engineer who worked for Shell Oil for over twenty-five years. Priscilla is a retired nurse who declined to give her age, but Dave says “she is a little younger than I am.” They have lived in Houston since 1971.

Dave and Priscilla first got involved with the janitors in 2006 when the workers were organizing to form a union. They attended a rally downtown.

“I had never seen anything like this in Houston, in terms of people coming out, and having a rally and a march, advocating for themselves and speaking out for economic justice,” said Dave. “And so we joined them, and we’ve stuck with them ever since as community supporters.”

“Sticking with them” has meant showing up for marches and rallies, being part of delegations that speak with business leaders, and trying to raise the public’s consciousness about the janitors’ struggle through their interfaith work. 

“Through the years we’ve gotten to know the janitors—their stories, their struggles, their humanity,” said Dave. “Many we know are mothers and grandmothers—you meet their children, get to know their families. You begin to feel like family, and you want them treated right. One struggle they have is that they [feel like] invisible members of the community because they do their work at night—nobody sees them.”

Recently, Dave and Priscilla were part of a delegation that spoke with Mark Cover, a vice president at Hines Real Estate, an international company with its US headquarters located in Houston. Also in the delegation were the Texas state director of SEIU Local 1, Elsa Caballero, a Catholic priest and nun, and three janitors.

Dave said Cover was “hospitable” and listened to the stories of the janitors and to the delegation’s appeal.

“We try to make [business people] understand that if the janitors do better, their children are going to do better, and it’s going to be better for the entire community,” Dave said. He said some of the janitors’ kids are dropping out of school to work and “help put food on the table”—that they don’t have the luxury to think about the long-term.

Cover told the delegation he’s a person of faith, too, and Dave felt good about the meeting. But that was two months ago, and Cover never responded to Dave’s follow-up email.

“I don’t see Hines taking a lead—at least it’s not visible to me,” said Dave. “Maybe he’s doing something behind the scenes.”

What frustrates Dave most of all is how easy it would be for any of these powerful corporations to step up and advocate for the janitors. He believes it’s not about the money, since what the workers are asking for “is very modest.”

“My opinion is that it’s resistance to unions. They do not like the fact that the janitors in Houston had the ‘audacity’ to organize back in 2006 and to speak up for themselves,” said Dave. “There are elements in Texas that want to ‘put people in their place’ and keep them there.”

Credit: David Atwood

Dave said his and Pricilla’s values are informed by Catholic social justice teachings, including “solidarity with your brothers and sisters in a struggle for a better life, and the preferential option for the poor.” According to Dave, the preferential option teaches that when you make decisions in society you give priority to the poor, and the impact a decision is going to have on the poor.

“And if it doesn’t have a good impact on the poor, then you shouldn’t make that decision,” said Dave.

He feels that faith institutions need to do a better job talking about justice issues in order to help people “awaken to the reality that if people are treated fairly and justly, it will be good for the entire human family.” He and other activists are doing their best to get a diversity of faith traditions involved in the janitors’ struggle.

“It’s not as if they don’t all have these basic tenets on justice,” said Dave. “Just talk about it every now and then, teach it—even if there are people in the congregation who don’t want to hear it.”

Dave and Priscilla are clear on how high the stakes are for this fight. They are hopeful that people of all backgrounds will continue to step forward—even if they are busy with their families, their jobs, their own daily grind. There have now been sixty-six total arrests for civil disobedience.

“We’ve always said that the janitors in Houston and across the nation are the vanguard for improved wages for everyone,” said Dave. “If we can be successful, I think it will have a positive effect on low-wage workers everywhere. We have to be successful. We can’t fail.”

Note: As this post went to press, an SEIU spokesman told me that the janitors were back at the bargaining table with the cleaning contractors, but no progress had been made.

What Will Jamie Do? (Continued)

In June, I wrote about Adriana Vasquez, a janitor who traveled from her home in Houston to Washington, DC, to ask JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon one simple question after he testified in Congress. She crossed the packed hearing room to the table where he sat and asked:

“Despite making billions last year, why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?”

“Call my office,” Mr. Dimon replied, before his entourage ushered him toward an exit.

A few days ago, having heard that Mr. Dimon never returned Ms. Vasquez’s call, I checked in with the company to find out why not?

“We would be happy to speak to Ms. Vazquez,” a company spokesman told me. “We have no record of her calling us to date, but if she does, we will be happy to speak to her.”

He also said that the bank only has a branch with fifteen employees at JPMorgan Chase Towers where Vasquez works, and the corporation doesn’t own the building.

But did he think JPMorgan Chase might be able to influence the negotiations if Mr. Dimon told the cleaning contractors that the janitors who clean their offices should earn a higher wage?

The spokesman didn’t want to engage in a hypothetical.

Well, are there other buildings that JPMorgan Chase does own in Houston where they could clearly have a say in how the janitors are treated?

Those buildings are managed by outside companies who contract with cleaning services, the spokesman said. They are part of an investment portfolio managed by JPMorgan but owned by institutions, pension funds and individuals.

When I told SEIU that JPMorgan said Ms. Vasquez never called, a spokesman said that that was bunk—the union and Ms. Vasquez called and spoke with Thao Doan of the JPMorgan Chase Executive Office.

I called Ms. Doan and left a voicemail asking could she confirm this? She didn’t return my call. I’d be hurt, but there seems to be a lot of that going around.

Maybe you can do better than I’ve done at getting some answers; or, more importantly, at convincing JPMorgan that it actually does have a role to play in raising the poverty-level wages of the workers who sanitize their bathrooms and workspaces, empty the trash, vacuum the floors—do the hard work the company depends on every day to operate in a clean and healthy environment.

SEIU has launched a national campaign calling on Mr. Dimon to meet with Ms. Vasquez. You can send him an e-mail. If you get anywhere with him, let me know.

We’re all janitors now.


Wage Theft and the Attack on American Values,” David Callahan

Election Chatter Glosses Over Our Childcare Morass,” Petula Dvorak

Poverty In America: Why Can’t We End It?” Peter Edelman

Ward 8 Farmers Helps Local Food Assistance Users….” Marissa Evans

Say It Like Beckham,” Jodie Levin-Epstein

Robert Pollin: Full Employment is Possible,” GRITtv with Laura Flanders

Does Corbett have something against women?” Michael Hinkelman & Catherine Lucey

More Americans Live in Economically Segregated Neighborhoods Than 30 Years Ago,” Gwen Ifill

Knoxville Church Advocates for Fair Working Conditions,” Anthony Moujaes

Studies and Other Resources

For-Profit Colleges Use Tax Dollars to Recruit Vulnerable Students…” Algernon Austin

A Safe Stable Place to Call Home… in Arkansas,” Children’s HealthWatch

Making Children a Priority in the 2012 Tax Debate,” Megan Curran

Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All,” Jacob Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil

Where Are All the Good Jobs Going?” Harry Holzer

Examining Poverty: The Supplemental Poverty Measure,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Downward Trends in Federal Spending for Children,” Julia Isaacs

High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” Pew Charitable Trusts

Income Inequality in New Jersey,” Poverty Research institute of Legal Services of NJ

Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?” John Schmitt and Janelle Jones

Out of Reach: Rental Affordability (2012),” Urban Institute

Take Action

Be Careful What You Cut Campaign
Dignity at Darden
Raise the Minimum Wage and Tipped Minimum Wage

Vital Statistics

50 percent of the jobs in the US pay less than $34,000 a year (Economic Policy Institute)

25 percent of the jobs in the US pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually (Economic Policy Institute)

Quote of the Week

“I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.”
                                                      —Peter Edelman, Georgetown University Law Professor,
                                    author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.comand follow me on Twitter.