Student protests of Palermo’s continue

Photo by Catelyn Roth-Johnson/
Photo by Catelyn Roth-Johnson/ [email protected]

About 30 Marquette students, former Palermo’s Pizza employees and their friends and family gathered outside the Bradley Center Saturday before the Marquette men’s basketball game to protest Palermo Villa Inc., a Milwaukee-based pizza company. Palermo’s is sold in university hall stores and the Bradley Center.

The protest was organized by Youth Empowered in the Struggle, a student-led, multicultural organization on campus promoting justice for immigrant students and workers. The organization is the youth branch of Voces de la Frontera, Wisconsin’s largest immigrant rights organization. Saturday’s protest was one of many organized this year to protest the company, which YES and other workers’ rights organizations claim fired employees for trying to unionize.

The National Labor Relations Board said in November that after a review of the case, the company was justified in firing the workers who were on strike.

“The investigation into allegations of unfair labor practices against the Milwaukee pizza manufacturer found no evidence Palermo fired the workers in retaliation for union-organizing efforts,” Irv Gottschalk, NLRB regional director in Milwaukee, told the Milwaukee Business Journal in November.

“Our goal is to have Marquette end its affiliation with this company and to remove all Palermo’s products from being sold on campus,” said Christian Villanueva, a junior in the College of Nursing and president of YES.

Villanueva said Marquette Student Government will be hosting a public forum in regard to its affiliation with Palermo’s after Easter Break.

“We met with the administration on Friday, and they seemed very open to what we had to say,” Villanueava said. “Most of them claimed they had no idea of the severity of the strike.”

Villanueva said he thinks Marquette is more open to changing its contract with Palermo’s because it is a member of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization that conducts investigations of working conditions in factories around the globe.

According to its website, the WRC has support from 180 colleges and universities across the country, including Marquette, and its primary focus is on the labor practices of factories that make university-related apparel.

The WRC compiled complaints from former Palermo’s employees.  

“We launched this inquiry in response to a complaint by a group of Palermo’s workers alleging that, in early June 2012, the company carried out a mass dismissal of employees, as well as other labor rights violations,” one report on the WRC website said. “We found this was in retaliation for the workers’ effort to organize a union at the company’s primary manufacturing facility in Milwaukee.”

The report stated that the workers who were terminated engaged in a strike that began June 1, 2012.

Sean Orr, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences and a member of YES, was one of the main organizers of Saturday’s protest.

“The WRC was set up to investigate cases of sweatshop labor around the world,” Orr said. “When they find serious labor violations at a factory about a mile from campus, that is something we all should find truly appalling.”

Orr said after six days of campaigning, more than 500 Marquette students signed a petition supporting the Palermo’s workers on strike.

“Who knows how many thousands of students would be disgusted by the actions of this company, and by our university’s continued support for its efforts,” Orr said.

Raul De La Torre, a former Palermo’s worker for more than ten years, spoke at the protest. He and 75 other workers were dismissed from the company last summer.

“Before they fired us, they claimed they were our family,” he said. “But they forgot that we had to provide for our families.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article included quotes and statements attributed to a Palermo’s representative. The company has said it has no record of the call in question and that no authorized representative of the company ever spoke to the Tribune. Those statements have since been removed from the article, and the Tribune is in communication with Palermo’s to resolve the issue. The Tribune regrets and apologizes for any confusion resulting from this issue and will continue its investigation into the matter.