The muscle of Bucky Badger could possibly get behind striking workers at Palermo’s Pizza.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Labor Licensing Policy Committee is recommending that the university move toward terminating contracts valued at more than $200,000 annually with the Milwaukee frozen pizza maker, whose products are sold at Camp Randall and the Kohl Center. The contracts also allow for the use of the Bucky Badger logo on Palermo’s pizzas sold in grocery stores.
“I think there is a lot of concern about how workers were treated” among committee members, Lydia Zepeda, chair of the licensing committee and professor of consumer science, told me Friday.
Palermo’s workers have been on strike since June. They claim in a charge to the National Labor Relations Board that Palermo's discriminated and retaliated against them after they tried to organize a union to address conditions that they say include dangerous machinery and a sick-day policy that forces them to go to work while ill. The workers say the company used an audit by immigration officials early this year to thwart their organizing efforts, then fired and replaced the workers involved.
The workers have called for a boycott on Palermo’s products, and that has become a major cause in labor circles around the country, drawing support from the AFL-CIO. Some retailers have backed it as well. Members of UW’s Student Labor Action Coalition and Teaching Assistants’ Association in October asked the university to terminate all business relations with Palermo’s until the labor dispute is settled.
Zepeda said the proposal backed Wednesday by the Labor Licensing Policy Committee is to ask interim Chancellor David Ward to put Palermo’s on notice that their contracts will be terminated unless the company hires back employees terminated in connection with the strike, recognizes the union and enters into a contract with workers within 30 days.
In the past, the committee has pushed the university to take a hard line on other companies it contracts with, particularly those that manufacture sportswear with the university’s logo.
A total of seven student groups now are pressing the UW licensing panel to declare that the pizza company’s treatment of its workers violates the contracts. Students pled their case Wednesday before the committee, whose members did not take a formal vote on the proposal, but agreed to draft a letter to be given to Ward early next week, Zepeda said.
“We’re trying to understand the facts of the case; it’s a very complex issue. We were told that there was urgency because the workers have been out since June,” she said.
In October, former Palermo’s worker Flora Anaya told committee members that she has not been able to find work to support her four children since going on strike and being fired by the company where she made $8.99 an hour making pizza dough. “I continue on the picket line, but it’s hard,” Anaya said through interpreter Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group.
In a letter to Ward responding to students’ demand to cut ties with the company that was presented to the licensing committee then, a Palermo’s spokesman said the students were in a long line of organizations that “have been misled into supporting an effort by Voces de la Frontera to subvert U.S. immigration law and the rights of Palermo’s employees.”
Company marketing director Chris Dresselhuys said Voces “fabricated a dispute between the company and its workers” to get publicity and to spread unionization. He disputed worker claims of unsafe working conditions and lack of paid sick time.
Neumann-Ortiz told committee members that “the idea that Palermo’s is a neutral party in this is laughable. They have been paying for a very aggressive anti-union campaign.”
There are two agreements governing the sales of Palermo’s pizza at UW venues and use of the Bucky logo, Vince Sweeney, vice chancellor for university relations, told me recently.
Palermo’s sponsorship agreement with Learfield Communications, which partners with the UW Athletic Department and the Wisconsin Union, includes radio advertisements for Palermo’s products during broadcasts of UW athletic events and Palermo’s signs at athletic venues, Sweeney said. It also provides for Palermo’s Pizza to be sold at Camp Randall and the Kohl Center during athletic events and at Union South and a few other campus locations. The sponsorship is valued at $200,000 annually, he said.
The university also has a licensing agreement with Roundy’s Supermarkets, Inc., that allows it to use the Bucky Badger logo on pizza sold at Roundy’s stores. Roundy’s contracts with Palermo’s to manufacture the pizzas.
The licensing agreement generates royalties of about $8,000 a year, according to Sweeney.
He said Friday that the chancellor’s office is aware of the ongoing labor dispute, but he does not yet know the specifics of the committee’s proposal.
“This is a complicated situation with great variance and contradiction in the viewpoints expressed. As an institution, we will continue to monitor the situation, with particular attention focused on any information that may be made available by the National Labor Relations Board and other similar sources,” Sweeney said.
Zepeda said that the licensing agreement with Roundy’s has a code of conduct requiring companies producing products that carry the Bucky logo to follow standard labor practices. “There is a concern that there has been a violation of the code of conduct,” she told me. The sponsorship agreement is contingent on a valid licensing agreement, she said.