In The News
Despite what you’ve read, workers taking bites out of Palermo
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted December 5, 2012
On November 15 at a packed People’s Gala in the UWM Union, Voces de la Frontera honored the determination of the Palermo workers seeking a union. The working families and their children crowded the stage in joy at the honor and the hope. Rumors swept the hall that a crucial decision on membership for a union election could emanate from the National Labor Relations Board regional office before Thanksgiving.
The key for the Palermo Workers Union effort was whether the 80 or so workers fired by Palermo would be allowed to vote as part of the new union, which would signal likely victory whatever future legal issues might face some of these workers. In fact, while the community boiled with rumors they were all illegal, many were not. Most said they were eager for a union and a day in court even if down the road some might face deportation under the byzantine rules the US system has fostered.
The issue was whether Palermo could successfully exclude the fired from a union election vote because of immigration law, whether it had hid within that law to prevent a union, and whether in a future union vote it could include the replacement workers hired through temporary agencies who would likely out of self-interest vote the company’s way against a union.
A week later, the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board did offer the parties a brief written summary and then, in a letter distributed December 3, conveyed a more formal partial dismissal of the charges.
In sum it found merit in the workers’ complaint that the company had violated labor laws -- unlawfully threatening at least half a dozen employees with job loss if they went out on strike and then refusing to let them back once replaced.
But it also did not find evidence of Palermo misbehavior on the charge that made the big headlines – using immigration law to impede a unionizing effort, which would be illegal.
The regional director, Irving Gottschalk, did not find “a preponderance of evidence” that the company had violated the workers’ protected labor rights, so it supported the company’s position that, tardy or not, it was within immigration law in ousting 75 workers.
But the union’s lawyer, Richard Saks, disagreed. As he told Labor Press November 30, Palermo Workers Union will appeal the NLRB finding, suggesting he did see evidence of anti-union campaigning by the company in the firings.
Saks points out that ICE sent the company a letter suspending interest in “suspect documents” –perhaps because it knew there was a union campaign underway, which could come out in future testimony – and only after that did Palermo mail letters out firing workers. He sees problems with the accelerated pace of replacing workers using immigration law as a reason.
If you are confused about this, join the local media. Except for a respectable report by Georgia Pabst in JS online, the business newspapers fudged it, one saying the ruling “vindicated” the company, another saying the workers were “properly” fired. It was careless reportage that did not understand the nuances of the law.
The NLRB deals with labor law process and determinative evidence -- not with immigration law and final interpretation. Finding insufficient evidence that the company was retaliating for the employees’ union effort is not the same as interpreting immigration law or closing the door to appeals that the evidence shows something else, which is what Saks will argue.
Spokesmen for Voces sure think that something else was going on and have a timeline to pursue the complaint. Currently the company is in negotiations to settle this turmoil over the workers -- and that could force an open admission it was engaged in an anti-union campaign. The company will likely reinstate some workers fired for engaging in union activity because it has been caught in six to nine obvious illegal firings not covered in the partial NLRB dismissal – something company spokesmen called a “minor infraction,” an excuse laughable to people who lost their jobs for engaging in protected activity. But any settlement will probably wait until the larger appeal.
When last August CEO Giacoma Falluca sought ways to resolve the dispute and the national boycott against the frozen pizza, even seeking a meeting with AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka, Labor Press interviews suggest his efforts were shot down by the notorious national union busting law firm, Jackson Lewis, hired to develop a more aggressive strategy.
The strategy now is fashioned around playing up the company’s public relations power and political angles and claiming the company would welcome a union, because it legally must, while seeking through lawyers to shape the election membership so a union can’t win.
The strategy includes slamming Voces for stirring up media attention while dodging questions about what Palermo knew or didn’t about hiring workers it shouldn’t.
Activists in the community are also angered at community leaders who say they support worker rights but are clearly caught between the Palermo deep pockets and what human instincts reveal is going on.
They cite County Executive Chris Ablele’s op-ed supporting the company’s reputation as a charitable leader, which it is (though apparently not in this case). They cite Mayor Tom Barrett, after the NLRB indicated it would exclude 75 workers from the election vote, belatedly supporting the union election vote, knowing full well that without these bodies the company would probably win.
One-sided media reporting also leaves the community confused, sympathetic with the workers and understandably muddled about the legalities.
In D.C., people connected to ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which does interpret our complex immigration laws) would not speak on the record but warned inquirers not to be so fast to judge. “No one is off the hook,” one told me, referring to both the company, which has been investigated on its hiring practices by ICE for more than four years, and the activists who want a union.
“The activists want our laws reformed and will say a lot to get that done,” he said. “The company tells you they were once immigrants themselves and would be the last people to be lawbreakers. But you know, sometimes they are the first because they are anxious to look the other way.”
As if talking to a child and off the record, he explained to Labor Press that the NLRB decision that there was not enough proof that the company tried to use immigration rules to stop workers who wanted a union doesn’t mean they didn’t do so. Or that they did. No one wants to judge without evidence, “but this sort of tug of war goes to the company without further action,” he said.
Now there is further action, according to Saks, the lawyer for the Palermo Workers Union, which is supported by the USW. He won honors from Voces at the gala but in a different context. It was for his civil rights victory with James Hall of the NAACP in the Voter ID rebuff at the courts.
It will take weeks for all this to unfold. Another contact in D.C. speaking off the record pointed out that “what seems new to Milwaukee is hardly new to us.”
In fact, ICE history is full of cases of companies who wanted good workers and accepted them despite uncertain papers, only later to learn they faced enormous fines for such actions. One response is to blame the workers for clever forgery and fire them hoping to escape fines.
No one in authority is saying that is what happened here. Few speculate on how the legalities will unfold. But there remains a cloud of suspicion plus maneuvers by the company to get out from under a national battle about humanity it knows it is losing.
The Voces gala remains powerful in retrospect. Even with mixed results and temporary setbacks, Voces has strong reason to celebrate and keep trucking. The Nov. 6 election indicated it has turned the Latino community into a political powerhouse and its volunteers, supporters and youth movement are to be cherished.
Not just the workers received awards. So did attorneys Peter Earle and Jackye Boynton for leading the legal charge that made a federal court panel redraw the GOP redistricting maps in Latino Milwaukee.
Honored as well were workers right center lawyer Israel Ramon, Equality Wisconsin pioneer Ray Vahey, Sanctuary movement volunteers Jeanne and Jim Cusak (he’s a retired carpenter widely known as a labor activist), the youth leaders who now dominate Voces and “new Americans” who are rapidly joining the cause with their citizenship papers proudly on parade.
The dynamic keynote speaker for the event, Kim Bobo, founder and leader of Interfaith Worker Justice, tied it all together with biblical quotes, the need for ethical businesses, the fight against wage theft and the reasons all of us must “lift our arms together” to succeed. Hundreds in the room followed her instructions and did just that.