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.