In The News
NLRB blocks Palermo election to investigate charges
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted July 16, 2012
The claims of intimidation of workers at Palermo Villa have led to postponement of the July 27 union representation election by the National Labor Relations Board. Under the agency's rules, there will be indefinite suspension while the charges are thoroughly investigated on merit.
That NLRB probe will also keep 75 terminated workers in this county untouched and unchallenged by ICE during the investigation. Palermo spokesmen have blamed the firings on ICE concerns over authorized presence. Also left in limbo on whether they will be part of any election process are the 82 workers hired to replace the terminated workers at Palermo facilities on Canal St. in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley. More than 200 workers could be involved in the ongoing dispute.
"162 permanent employees of the bargaining unit signed a petition for union representation before the strike," said Roberto Silva of the Palermo Workers Union in a press release July 13. "Since then, at least 90 strikers have been unjustly fired. These retaliatory terminations and other violations by the company have made the atmosphere at Palermo too intimidating.”
In cold legal terms, it will now be months of investigation and interviews by the NLRB before the charges are confirmed or rejected, and only then could any election even be considered. NLRB Region District 30 under director Irving Gottschalk will be in charge of the multi-pronged inquiry.
The delay was required once the complaining party, the Palermo Workers Union. decided not to allow the election to proceed. NLRB procedures view the complaint as serious since it could affect the Excelsior list, which all sides must agree to in order to hold a consent decree election for a union. Such a list includes names and addresses. The current list reportedly excludes the terminated workers and adds the replacement workers.
In the amended ULP complaint, the attorney for the workers union, Richard Saks, argued that the list was inequitable - not just because the workers were terminated by Palermo the day after the company received a letter from the federal agency ICE that it was suspending interest in "suspect documents." The ULP also argues that the replacement workers were not subject to the same worker authorization documentation procedures as the workers terminated. In other words, you can't demand one set of papers and not another.
NLRB officials say they will have to interview the workers involved and hold them available for any trial and that ICE (the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement federal agency) will freeze any action while the NLRB, also a federal agency, proceeds.
If the legalities are confusing enough to the public, so is the muddle around current immigration policy. Off the record, ICE officials are upset with press releases on both sides, feeling the agency is being scapegoated for following well-established procedures to verify worker documents.
In fact, supporters of the Palermo company have been forced in large part to the "nice guys" defense, since the founding family also came to these country decades ago as immigrants and have become in the eyes of many "model corporate citizens" in helping charities and civic causes along with their expansion.
Largely on that basis, and its reputation for providing benefits and wage rules in a non-union-supervised environment, the current operators of Palermo claim that only outside agitators are making trouble, everything inside the plant is fine and that it was pressure from ICE's concerns about documents, not unionizing actions, that led to the terminations.
Unexplored in Palermo's press statements is that if the company is found to have hired workers it hould have known were suspect, it is the company facing strong financial penalties.
It's all a reminder what a difference time and need make in how America deals with its immigrant population. Perhaps the current fury over workers in this county without appropriate papers - and suspicion that everyone who speaks Spanish and doesn't look Anglos may not have a right to be in the US - is a temporary aberration brought on by personal economic distress, a shrunken job market and inflamed political extremism.
But certainly it forces hard-working families, particularly Latino families, to jump through legal hoops that simply did not exist when the Falluca family brought its own relatives to America decades ago to help run its bakery, then Palermo pizza restaurant and now national frozen pizza operation, educating many through college and business advancement in the process.
Immigrants who succeed in the American dream not only serve as inspiration to newer arrivals, they are also according to national studies the hardest to convince that the rules have changed so radically – and hence are prone to quickly respond to the need for good workers by remembering the upward aspirations of the incoming workers. Until the consequences close in.
No one has yet claimed that is the case at Palermo. But ICE's annals are full of stories of well-meaning business leaders suddenly realizing it was not the workers violating the law but the companies facing stiff legal fines for looking the other way to get good workers - and then moving quickly to deny any responsibility and get rid of the human evidence.
At Palermo, however, many workers and their supporters now claim that the workers' papers were not questioned hard at the start and that the blame put on ICE interest, however true, was not as much a spur as the unionizing, a company attitude that would be illegal if proven. Partly that is what the investigation at the NLRB is about.
As for the "nice families" argument used by neighbors, charities that have benefited and even in an op-ed by County Executive Chris Abele, who has received political support from the founders, "These are nice families and nice people, too, working at Palermo until they were fired once they tried to better their lives," complained Saks.
His remarks are echoed by many in the community who are pretty nice people, too - the "nuns on the bus" who rode through the state preaching social justice, the Steelworkers, the Milwaukee Area Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), the Milwaukee teachers union, Voces de la Frontera (which helped organize the workers) and political figures who, like Abele, are concerned about the image of Milwaukee as a good place for all workers, those how have made it like the Palermo founders and those who are trying to make it, like the 75 workers cheerfully hired before firing.
"We can't let these families just get lost in the shuffle and the hostility," said a Latino senior rallying with the workers but refusing to give his name. "I'm here legally but my name is none of your business," he told Labor Press.
If nothing else, noted one legal observer, the NLRB decision to investigate gives credence to the concern of the workers and gives time for the issues to work out with verifiable evidence.