No one was watching when a bus-load of striking factory workers pulled up early on a Sunday morning in July outside the vast Costco store on the far reaches of Middleton. A couple of dozen workers from Palermo's Pizza in Milwaukee, joined by local union members and activist students from a national group meeting in Madison, hoisted protest signs and began to march.
"No Justice, No Pizza" read one sign calling for a boycott of Palermo's products, of which Costco is a major retailer. "No Justice, No Piece" punned another.
The protesters marched in a loop on the sidewalk and called out chants familiar to the labor movement: "The people, united, will never be defeated." And words closely linked to the immigrant rights movement: "Si, se puede!" (roughly, "Yes, we can" — originally the rallying cry of the United Farm Workers in the 1970s).
Most of the pizza factory workers are Spanish-speaking immigrants. They say that Palermo's called in immigration authorities to scare them off when they petitioned the company to organize after years of failed efforts to improve working conditions, then replaced striking workers.
Union members from the Madison-based South Central Federation of Labor marched with the pizza factory workers outside the Middleton Costco. But when it was time for the rallying cries, it was a Milwaukee public school teacher who took the microphone to talk about how important the cause of these low-wage immigrant workers is to organized labor.
"Some people are saying the labor movement is dead — with this, it is being reborn," said Kim Schroeder, vice president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, whose members had been joining some striking workers outside the pizza factory on picket lines on that city's south side. Schroeder pledged the buying power of his 7,000-member union to the national boycott sought by the striking Palermo's workers.
"In the past year, I've been labeled a 'union thug,'" Schroeder said, invoking a conservative slur from the long, bitter battle over collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public employees that Gov. Scott Walker launched in 2011.
Walker's recall election in June was viewed nationally as a bellwether of overall union clout as its collective membership declines. In the wake of Walker's victory — which one exit poll said was supported by 38 percent of union households — organized labor is redoubling its efforts to support workers "past the walls of our union halls," as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka put it in a recent speech.
Unions are scrambling, too, to recapture the kind of thrilling call to action exemplified in the 1979 movie "Norma Rae," a fictionalized telling of the real life story of organizing cotton mill workers in South Carolina. When the title character jumps up on her work table to silently display a scrawled cardboard "UNION" sign, and her co-workers turn off their machines one by one until the din of the factory is silenced — well, Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae.
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Could the uprising of the feisty pizza workers from Milwaukee hold the same power to arouse workers — and sway a watchful public — as that star turn from the 1970s?
Despite the relatively small size of the company, the strike that began on June 1 has attracted nationwide attention. Within two weeks of the picketing in Middleton, actions were staged in 11 cities outside Costco stores, asking the company not to stock Palermo's products.
Then Trumka endorsed a national boycott on Palermo's products. Last week, informational picketing outside Costco stores was temporarily suspended after company executives reportedly approached Trumka about finding a way for the company to make a positive contribution to the Palermo's situation.
Such a grass-roots effort to exercise the right under law to organize — without assistance from an existing labor union — is the kind of thing you don't see much anymore, said Armando Ibarra, an assistant professor at the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. "It's inspiring," he told me.
Union leaders are quick to say that the conditions that galvanized the immigrant workers at Palermo's Pizza are the same as those that confront many low-wage workers. "A lot of workers now are being treated poorly, paid very little and have absolutely no voice in the workplace," local labor federation President Kevin Gundlach told me.
But in other ways, the story of the Palermo's workers is a uniquely immigrant story, and it lends credence to what a number of labor scholars are saying — that efforts to organize by immigrant workers are on the "leading edge" of the labor movement.
To begin with, it was a demand by Palermo's management that some 75 workers provide proof of their Social Security numbers — in response to an audit of work documents by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — and the subsequent firing of those workers that touched off the strike. After Palermo's workers filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board, ICE suspended its audit at the plant, a move labor leaders and scholars say is virtually unheard of.
Any vote on a union has been delayed while the labor relations board investigates the workers' charge.
Palermo's officials deny that there is any connection between the audit and the union drive, and the government won't even confirm that there was an audit.
In a statement, an ICE spokesperson last week said the agency doesn't confirm workplace audits unless its investigations result in penalties to businesses for law violations, but stressed that "ICE plays no role in any ongoing labor disputes when conducting investigations involving an employee's eligibility to work lawfully in the United States."
In order not to conflict with investigations of labor disputes, "in rare cases, ICE may temporarily suspend an ongoing audit," the statement says.
But labor activists say that threats of an ICE audit — and the accompanying specter of deportation for workers who can't prove they are authorized to work in the United States — is a tactic commonly used by employers to thwart union drives.
The threat of immigration audits came up during organizing drives of janitorial and laundry workers in Madison in the mid-2000s, said Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers' Rights Center in Madison. Threats regarding workers' authorization status also crop up when workers who are not unionized file complaints for unpaid wages, discrimination or unsafe conditions with labor law regulatory agencies, Hickey says, despite the fact that state and federal labor laws protect workers regardless of their immigration status.
"ICED OUT," a 2009 report by the AFL-CIO, declared that a "single-minded focus on immigration enforcement without regard to violations of workplace laws has enabled employers with rampant labor and employment violations to profit by employing workers who are terrified to complain … or demand the right to bargain collectively."
This is true, the report says, despite a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions stretching back to 1984 that establish that the use of worker immigration status to retaliate for organizing activity violates the National Labor Relations Act.
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Perhaps in part because of their unique vulnerability to retaliation for organizing activities, immigrant workers often are clustered in low-paying jobs that in turn carry plenty of incentive to try to organize.
Labor scholars like Frank Emspak, an emeritus professor at the School for Workers, say the story of organized labor has traditionally been the story of immigrants.
"In the last century, who was organizing? It was immigrant steel workers, immigrant coal miners, getting together when there was no labor law," he said.
Beyond that, the nature of the immigrant experience itself has resulted in a disproportionate amount of recent organizing activity taking place in workplaces where immigrants dominate, says labor scholar Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Immigrant workers are people who have taken the ambitious step of pulling up roots to move to another country to advance themselves economically, Milkman pointed out, making them more motivated than other workers to organize to protect the prospect of a better life.
In addition, new arrivals typically depend on others from their home country for assistance to help them survive, which often creates the tight social networks that facilitate workplace organizing, Milkman said.
Although in the last half of the 20th century an anti-immigrant sentiment developed in organized labor — which included Cesar Chavez, the famous organizer who led historic lettuce and grape boycotts in support of U.S.-born farm workers — by the turn of the 21st century, unions were embracing immigrant workers as key players in what had become an embattled future.
Then began another wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that gave rise to state laws in Arizona and elsewhere that critics say jeopardize basic civil rights.
Despite that sentiment, the American public supports the rights of immigrant workers, Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director for the AFL-CIO, told me.
"People know that immigrants are vulnerable and struggle, and that regardless of their status, workers are workers," Sweeney said. "Lots of immigrant workers are documented to work, and it's important for the general public to realize that when any worker — regardless of status — gets bullied, it affects all of us. If the person working alongside you doesn't get to exercise his rights, you don't get to exercise your rights."
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It was an immigrant rights group — Voces de la Frontera, headquartered in Milwaukee — that the Palermo's workers turned to several years ago for help with their labor troubles. The nonprofit agency helped workers file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Palermo's management interfered with, discriminated against, retaliated against and refused to bargain with workers who were organizing as the independent Palermo Workers Union.
Voces also has spread the word about the workers' campaign, notifying media outlets of planned actions and coordinating efforts with non-union groups to build support for their efforts.
A campaign asking Costco to drop Palermo's products delivered a reported 4,000 emails to executives there. Costco Wholesale Corp. executives have not responded to phone calls seeking comment on the workers' plea to stop carrying frozen pizza marketed under the Palermo's and "Kirkland" labels.
The protest at Costco in Middleton last month was timed to coordinate with a national conference in Madison of the activist United States Student Association. Members of that group pledged to bring news and support for the emerging boycott back to their hometowns. Many members of the student organization are first-generation Americans, outgoing President Victor Sanchez told the protesters. "We understand the struggles of our parents."
Cesar Hernandez, a six-year Palermo's employee, told me through an interpreter about the workers' action. "We're asking people to stop supporting this company that is treating us poorly."
He told me that part of his right index finger was nearly severed in 2007 when it was caught in a packaging machine that the company failed to fix despite complaints.
"My hand was caught and the machine came down and cut off about one-third of my finger," Hernandez said. The finger was reattached at a hospital, but Hernandez said he was back on the production line after two days. "They said I had to go back to work."
Palermo's officials declined to respond to Hernandez's claim of injury, but records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration include two recent violations by Palermo's in similar incidents. A 2010 citation for machinery that failed to protect against amputation carried the maximum fine of $7,000; a 2008 citation for a similar violation resulted in a $4,500 fine.
Palermo's officials declined to be interviewed for this story in general, but a statement emailed to me in response to a request for an interview on the company's labor issues quotes director of marketing Chris Dreselhuys as saying that the company merely "cooperated with ICE and obeyed the law" after ICE found some workers ineligible to work. Dreselhuys denied that there is any labor dispute and said the company welcomes a vote on unionization as soon as possible.
"Although recent efforts by Voces de la Frontera will delay the union vote and undermine our employees' desire to be heard, we will continue to cooperate with the investigation and the National Labor Relations Board to help ensure that a resolution is reached that reflects the will of our employees."
Dreselhuys called the boycott attempt "the latest tactic designed to harm a company that for nearly a half-century has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to its multi-cultural workforce, its customers, and the community."
The decision to strike was solely that of the workers, Voces executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz told me. "Anyone with a lick of sense would know that workers and their families would not make that decision lightly," she said.
As many as 150 workers went out on strike in June, she says, and about 90 continue to strike against the company.
Neumann-Ortiz said workers took action after years of failed efforts to improve wages and working conditions, including a discriminatory lack of respect for Latino workers and a sick day policy that forced ailing workers to stay on the job, jeopardizing not only the health of workers, but also the health of those who consume Palermo's products.
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In Wisconsin, labor leaders came away from the exhilarating, but ultimately sobering, experience of the "Wisconsin uprising" against Walker with the lesson that "everyone has to have everybody's back when it comes to solidarity," David Poklinkoski, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2304 and head of outreach for the South Central Federation of Labor, told me.
The emerging Wisconsin Solidarity and Support Network could prove to be a national model, he said. The effort already is lending support to Palermo's workers, raising about $2,000 for their strike fund. The local labor federation, the AFL-CIO, and other labor groups are planning for a national day of action in support of Palermo's workers on Saturday, Aug. 25.
The labor federation also is working to develop a coalition with local community organizations to work on issues that affect everybody, organized labor or not, Poklinkoski said, explaining that the perception of organized labor as an integral part of the community has eroded in recent decades as union membership has dropped.
Union membership nationwide has fallen from a high of 25.5 percent of all workers in 1953, to 18.7 percent in 1979 when "Norma Rae" hit movie theater screens, to a seven-decade low of 11.8 percent in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The labor movement laid the foundation for the wages, benefits and standard of living everyone enjoys. But now we've got people trying to jackhammer that foundation out of existence," Poklinkoski said.
The labor federation's Gundlach said unions need to operate now in a way that recognizes how civil rights, human rights and labor rights are interconnected. "These are all real issues for workers, not just catchphrases," he said.
The labor agenda has always been a broad one, says the AFL-CIO's Sweeney, pointing to connections between labor and the civil rights and consumer protection movements. "It's always been about more than an extra nickel in the paycheck."
Voces' Neumann-Ortiz sees potential for a convergence of labor interests in the fact that 30 percent of the jobs created in the United States in the past 30 years are low-wage, providing great potential for solidarity between immigrants and other low-wage workers. In the past several years, organized workers once considered "professionals" also are under attack, so "there is greater opportunity for solidarity between them and immigrant workers," she says.
Hickey of the Workers' Rights Center, a former labor organizer, believes that immigrant workers — who often have the hardest and most dangerous occupations — will continue to play an important role in labor issues, inside and outside of unions. "But if the labor movement expects to return to significance, it needs to find a way to become relevant to the broader workforce — white-collar workers, high-tech workers, retail workers," he says.
Despite antipathy toward immigrants in some quarters, immigrant workers can help labor regain lost ground, said the City University of New York's Milkman, especially with the assistance of rights organizations that are deft in influencing media coverage. By working to remove the lack of legal status — the primary barrier to economic advancement for immigrant workers — these organizations touch on fundamental issues that resonate with the general public.
"If you win the hearts and minds of the public, it can make a difference," Milkman said.
And low-wage immigrant workers, unlike the Wisconsin public workers who grabbed national headlines for the past year-and-a-half, are unlikely — however wrongly — to be dismissed as whiners who have it better than a lot of other workers, she said. "There may be more public sympathy for these workers — there's no envy factor."
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Outside the Middleton Costco late last month, passersby began honking support for the picketers as traffic picked up and shoppers pulled into the store's huge parking lot.
"Unions are out of vogue," Wisconsin state worker Carmen Clark of Madison told me when I asked her to leave the picket line for a minute to talk. "Their needs are our needs," Clark said of immigrant workers, pointing to the vast inequities in wealth between the "1 percent" and everyone else as the source of economic problems today. The solution, she said, is bringing all workers up to the standard that long-organized workers enjoy.
Ibarra of the School for Workers told me that one reason that the public may have soured on unions is that people forget that whatever benefits organized workers have, they worked to get them. "If you have a pension or decent health care, it's because you are part of a collective that sat down with employers and negotiated them."
That's why the story of the gutsy Palermo's workers holds so much potential, Ibarra said. "Even if they are not victorious, they can inspire people in other workplaces."