Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Hey Ho, Palermo’s Gotta Go

Protestors pressure UW to end relationship with Palermo's Pizza in Milwaukee, citing its labor violations.

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It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Rebecca Blank, incoming chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Sure, the acting U.S. commerce secretary, set to start in July, will make $500,000 a year — plus benefits and perks including a university residence and car, money for travel and entertainment, and an unpaid academic appointment for her husband.

But she’ll be stepping into a host of controversies, drawing flak from all directions. As one UW-Madison student quipped, “Blank is not starting off with a blank slate.”

There’ll be ongoing fallout from some legislators’ volcanic eruptions over revelations that the UW System has a $648 million reserve fund. Though this is in line with other state systems, Wisconsin politicians are “disgusted.” Observers expect a two-year tuition freeze and the axing of some or all of the additional university funding proposed in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 budget.

The UW-Madison is also under fire over its ties to Palermo Villa of Milwaukee, which makes Palermo’s Pizza.

A strike was launched last June 1, days after about three-fourths of the factory’s 200 production workers signed a petition seeking to unionize. About 75 workers were fired when they were allegedly unable to verify their immigration work status; others were terminated for other reasons.

Around this time, Palermo’s inked a three-year, $600,000 deal under which its pizza is sold at Kohl’s Center and Camp Randall events, and promoted in those venues and elsewhere. A separate licensing agreement, which lets its pizzas be sold by Roundy’s under the Bucky Badger logo, has earned the university nearly $20,000 since 2010.

Students and others gather outside Bascom Hall on April 29 to protest the University of Wisconsin-Madison's ties to Palermo's Pizza. Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Students and others gather outside Bascom Hall on April 29 to protest the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s ties to Palermo’s Pizza. Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Groups including the UW-Madison Student Labor Action Coalition are pressuring interim Chancellor David Ward to sever these ties. More than 10,000 names appear on an online petition to this effect.

The movement teems with youthful exuberance. The main website for the anti-Palermo’s campaign is called sliceofjustice.com. One of its rallying cries is “No justice. No piece.”

Last November, the UW-Madison Labor Codes Licensing Compliance Committee urged the university to move toward ending its contract. A report issued in February by the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring organization that lists the UW-Madison as an affiliate, concluded that Palermo’s has “engaged in serious violations of worker rights.”

Palermo’s, in a statement, called the report “a work of fiction” created to punish the company for complying with federal immigration laws.

Last fall, the National Labor Relations Board dismissed allegations that the 75 workers were fired in retaliation for protected organizing activities. An appeal of this ruling was rejected in late April.

Ward trumpeted this finding, saying that while the university continues to urge an end to the labor dispute, “we believe that cutting ties with Palermo’s at this time is not warranted based on the facts.”

Protesters display signs from the windows of Bascom Hall while occupying a reception area outside interim Chancellor David Ward's office on April 29. Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Protesters display signs from the windows of Bascom Hall while occupying a reception area outside interim Chancellor David Ward’s office on April 29. Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

But Richard Saks, the Milwaukee attorney who lodged the complaint, notes that not all charges were dismissed. The NLRB, he says, “has been prepared to issue a complaint and prosecute Palermos for various other serious labor law violations.”

On April 29, a dozen protesters occupied a reception area outside Ward’s office for about three hours, until removed by police, while about 100 others rallied outside. They sang “Solidarity Forever” and chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Palermo’s contract’s got to go!”

One speaker, Scot McCullough of the UW-Oshkosh, reflected that college students like himself are in “a unique stage in our lives.” They won’t be denied a degree for speaking out; they aren’t beholden to employers who can use a paycheck to keep them in line.

“We’re free,” he told the crowd. “The question is, what do we do with that freedom?” The choices he outlined: Use it to benefit oneself, or try to help others.

That’s a good question for college students to ask, even if the answers they come up with make things difficult for the people who run universities.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

4 thoughts on “Hey Ho, Palermo’s Gotta Go”

  1. Andy says:

    Hasn’t this story been killed yet? No offense to the 12 students at this protest, but they really need to do more fact checking before blindly follwoing a cause.

    Palermo’s supports a vote by the employee’s on unionizing. The 75 people were let go according to FEDERAL law. Are these students suggesting that Palermo’s should break the law?

    If Voces De La Frontera wants to help these people unionize so badly, why have they (and continually) block any effort to actually unionize?

    And for the 11 people let go for “other reasons” that are to be rehired, great… get them back working… Although I find it unfair that these people can decide not to show up for work for a long period of time and not get let go. If I did that at my job I’d be canned by probably the 3rd day.

  2. Patrick says:

    Maybe 10 people really care. What logic is there to take 5 minutes out of the day to protest this. They don’t call a vote because they don’t have them. The lesson learned here for me is to locate my business outside of urban areas where support for unions is weaker. At the end of the day it’s MY business not those working for me. I would gladly treat them well if they treat me well.

  3. mbradleyc says:

    I really like Palermo’s thin crust pizzas. They taste good enough, they’re cheap and you can pack the freezer.

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