Wednesday’s ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) delivered a major setback to Voces de la Frontera’s (VDLF) five-month caustic campaign against Palermo’s Pizza. Voces de la Frontera, a union-centric advocacy group, alleged the pizza company used an ICE audit to stymy worker efforts to unionize. Early on, Chris Dresselhuys, spokesperson for Palermo’s Pizza, said allegations of union busting were manufactured by Voces and that efforts to organize a union materialized only after Voces learned of the ICE audit.

The NLRB ruling appears to support Dresselhuys’ claim. Irv Gottschalk, regional director of the NLRB, said, “The claim [made by Voces] was that all of this was really in retaliation for union activity. And my conclusion is the evidence didn’t show that.”

On May 27, 2012, Palermo’s legal counsel notified VDLF of the ICE audit and asked for help getting the proper documentation of their employees in order. The news left Christine Neumann-Ortiz scrambling -- not to help employees with documentation -- but to collect signatures for a union petition.

On May 29 (two days later), Neumann-Ortiz filed a petition to unionize with the NLRB. Maria Monreal-Cameron, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told El Conquistador that she was approached by undocumented workers and was specifically told they would keep their jobs if a Palermo’s union were formed.

The timing of the Neumann-Ortiz’ petition and the filing of Unfair Labor Practice charges suggests she knew of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOA) between the U.S. Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Labor affirming that ICE would have to “de-conflict itself” from an audit if the company in question had an ongoing labor dispute.

A timeline of events shown below indicate that within three days of filing Unfair Labor Practice charges, Palermo’s received a “stay of action” letter by the Deputy Chief Counsel of ICE, which effectively halted the ICE’s audit.

May 27 - Palermo’s Pizza contacts Voces de la Frontera for help and notifies them of an ICE audit.

May 29 - Christine Neumann-Ortiz files unionization petition on behalf of the Palermo’s Workers Union.

May 31 - Palermo’s receives notification of the petition to unionize.

June 4 - Palermo’s Workers Union files an “Unfair Labor Practice charge” against Palermo’s (officially creating an ongoing labor dispute)

June 7 - ICE notifies Palermo’s of a stay of further action regarding its Notice of Suspect Documents.

In an email to El Conquistador Newspaper, ICE said that their policy is intended to prevent parties from using ICE to interfere with ongoing labor disputes “without regard to whether a workforce is or is not unionized.” In other words, the Memorandum of Understanding between Homeland Security and the Department of Labor prevents companies from using ICE as a tool to thwart union organizing, but does little to prevent groups like Voces de la Frontera from filing Unfair Labor Practice charges to thwart an ICE investigation.

Media Coverage

With regard to media coverage, it should be noted that the NLRB delayed Tuesday’s ruling to Wednesday - a day before Thanksgiving and the busiest shopping weekend of the year. Prominent talk radio personalities at 620 and 1130 AM that had followed the Palermo’s story closely were off for the holidays. Most mainstream media outlets ran stories reflecting a major win for Palermo’s Pizza, clearing them of union busting charges.

WISN12’s headline read, “Labor Board supports Palermo’s decision to fire workers over immigration issues.” The Business Journal’s headline read, “Palermo Villa: NLB decision ‘vindicates’ company.” Fox6Now’s headline read, “NLRB dismisses claims filed by Voces de la Frontera against Palermo’s.” And Channel 3000.com’s headline read, “Federal officials side with Palermo’s in labor dispute.”

The only coverage that seemed to drizzle on Palermo’s parade came from Georgia Pabst of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her report appeared to assign more space to debunked and dismissed worker complaints than to the implications of the of the NLRB ruling.

It’s no small matter that the overarching claim used to fuel a nationwide boycott of their products by the country’s largest umbrella union organization has been wholly dismissed by the NLRB. The story here should be about a company’s ultimate vindication from undeserved attacks. Space dedicated to rehash old talking points used ad nauseam by affected former workers is unnecessary and arguably diversionary.

Media ignores sentiment among Latinos

As the controversy percolated between Palermo’s and Voces, leaders in the Hispanic community weren't slow to choose sides. Voces began to court Hispanic politicians quickly, but understandably some were reticent about taking a public stand. State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa felt a connection with the affected workers and wrote a passionate op-ed saying in part,

“The ways things are going now, Palermo’s will be known across the country as the immigrant run pizza business that started small and achieved the American Dream -- only to exploit their workers doing so, while sticking it to the taxpayers.

And Palermo’s will be infamous as the factory where scores of immigrants wanting to better their lives - like its owners, the Falluccas, not long ago -- were fired under bogus anti-immigrant pretenses, and got away with it.”

In a new statement sent out by Zamarripa, she says she’s happy to hear some of the workers will get their jobs back, but will “withhold further comment until I have read the full written decision by the NLRB upon its release.” This should have been Zamarripa’s course of action before writing her condemnatory piece. It’s understandable to sympathize with workers fired during tough economic times, but swinging blunt political instruments at Palermo’s wasn’t the answer.

Although the Hispanic community was generally supportive of Palermo’s Pizza, the lack of support they received from Milwaukee leaders like Mayor Tom Barrett, Representative Josh Zepnick, County Supervisor Peggy Romo-West, and Madam Chair Marina Dimitrijevic is frustrating.

When asked last month whether Zepnick would support a national boycott of Palermo’s products, he responded, “I’ll have to answer that question in January when they become a part of my district.” That’s like a president-elect refusing to accept help from a transition team because he hasn’t been sworn into office.

Palermo’s Pizza is an important player in Zepnick’s newly drawn Assembly District. He should be building bridges, not coauthoring a letter that blame them of illegal activity. When I asked Zepnick if he had evidence to support his allegation, he said he presumed the NLRB wouldn’t be investigating charges if there weren’t legitimate worker concerns. Wrong answer.

I don’t doubt that Zepnick wants to do good for his community. My advice to him is not firing a gun before pulling it from the holster. If politicians want to take any lead, it should be from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele who, upon request, released this statement:

“I'm obviously very happy for the Falluca family and Palermo's getting the vindication they deserve. What is disappointing is that so much of the information that supports the Palermo's case has been available from the start and yet that didn't seem to matter too much to the people and organization leading the charge against them. Why? Because they were apparently more interested in appearing to champion a righteous cause than getting their facts right. If we want to build the kind of world class business climate and create the jobs I know we can here in the County, all of us in public office have to be passionate about getting there.”

It’s understandable why some advocate for Palermo’s Pizza to relocate their business to districts more receptive and appreciative of values associated with increased job creation, property tax revenue, and community involvement. Instead, our political leaders should reevaluate what’s important for and in our communities.

Although Milwaukee’s unemployment rate is gradually improving, failing to support good businesses that lead the way in employment compensation and community involvement is not just an economic mistake; when deliberate, it’s moral ineptitude.

In an email sent to nearly a dozen parishes in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Voces de la Frontera asks congregations to open not only their hearts, but their pocketbooks.

This struggle is not political, this struggle is about immigrant workers and families that are fighting for their rights after years of abuse,” said Kathleen Shea, New Sanctuary Movement Coordinator for Voces de la Frontera.

“How can you help,” Shea asks?

You could allow a Voces representative to introduce a Palermo’s striker to your place of worship and make a 3-5 minute presentation at the end of mass about their story and explain the reasons why they are on strike.  We would also ask if you can offer a second collection for the strike fund (Emphasis mine). In case that is not possible, then could you allow the workers and a Voces/NSM representative to ask for donations at the time when people leave, ” Shea proposes.

The dispute between Palermo’s Pizza and Voces de la Frontera arose shortly after ICE had notified the company that 89 employees needed additional documentation to maintain workplace eligibility.  At the behest of Maria Monreal-Camerson, President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Wisconsin, Palermo's had reached out to Voces presuming they had the resources and inclination to help their employees get proper documentation.

Instead of coordinating with Palermo's, Voces did some coordinating of their own.  They used the ICE audit to scare workers into signing a petition to organize a union -- some workers had believed it would get them their jobs back.  Ultimately, in compliance with the Immigration and Nationality Act, Palermo’s was compelled to fire nearly ninety employees for failing to verify workplace eligibility.

There seems to be a disagreement among unionists of whether the Palermo's issue is one of immigration or union busting. State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa, who has taken a lead role supporting former Palermo’s workers on strike, said in a phone interview Monday night that the issue of Palermo’s isn’t one of immigration, but of preserving the constitutionally protected rights to organize.

Zamarripa said, “Palermo’s is trying to turn this into an immigration fight. That’s why I feel the need to be more resolute.”  Her effort to steer the Palermo’s issue from a focus on immigration to worker rights was made clear in the recent interview. She believes that Palermo’s is using immigration as a fear tactic to intimidate workers. What’s less clear; however, is why Voces’s email now steers the issue from collective bargaining back to immigration.

In their pitch to the local perishes, Shea communicated in all caps, “IF WE WIN, THIS IS NOT ONLY A VICTORY FOR A GROUP OF PALERMO PIZZA WORKERS, BUT A VICTORY FOR ALL IMMIGRANT WORKERS THAT DESERVE TO BE TREATED WITH DIGNITY!

According to Voces’ website, their Sanctuary Movement aims to unite “a growing number of faith groups behind a stance of conscience - to defend immigrant families from being torn apart by deportations.”

Certainly, a good question to ask is why Voces’ Sanctuary Movement Coordinator - whose job is to deal specifically with families torn apart by deportations - is reaching out to local parishes for support IF the former Palermo’s workers on strike weren't at risk of being undocumented? Is this a tacit admission by Voces that Palermo’s did what they were supposed to do?

Voces’ outreach to Milwaukee parishes appears to be strategic. They understand that the Catholic Church is more sympathetic to illegal immigration than they are to collective bargaining. Catholic Social Teaching states that sovereign nations have a right to protect their borders and enforce their laws for the sake of the common good. But the U.S. Catholic Bishops clarified this stance in 2003 saying that when persons [immigrants] cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves or their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere to survive.

It is this spiritual sensibility that provides Voces greater access to sympathetic parishes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Hispanics are the least likely to join a labor union of all ethnic groups in the United States. So, emphasizing the right to collectively bargain at Hispanic parishes wouldn’t be as compelling as recasting the Palermo’s narrative into a bitter immigration fight.

I’ve reached out to the Milwaukee Archdiocese for a statement on Voces’ recent outreach efforts. Julia Wolf, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said she was unaware of the emails until I had brought them to her attention.  She's also unaware of any parishes that have granted Voces’ request.

Wolf elaborated, “Pastors, from time to time, allow various organizations to make presentations and request donations.” Wolf continued, “I know in my parish they have spoken to the congregation. Pastors make these decisions in light of Church teaching and knowledge of their parish.” Wolf went on to say that the Archbishop, as far as she knows, is unaware of the issue.

Typically, an Archdiocese allows parishes the flexibility to work with organizations under the guidance of Church teachings and the makeup of their congregation. But why did Voces choose parishioners of poor Latino neighborhoods to raise funds instead of tapping the deep pockets of labor unions? Didn’t the AFL-CIO team up with Voces in a national boycott of Palermo’s pizzas?

Although Voces has not returned multiple calls, Palermo’s spokesperson Chris Dresselhuys had this to say:

“After exploiting former Palermo’s workers, it is regrettable that Voces de la Frontera is now trying to exploit the Catholic Church. As part of a brazen fundraising scheme, Voces de la Frontera has repeated false claims about working conditions and pay rates at Palermo’s that have already been publicly debunked.”

Dresselhuys also disputes Voces’s claim to the parishes that most Palermo’s workers do not earn more than minimum wage. Dresselhuys said the average starting wage for a production employee at Palermo’s is $12.90 per hour, which includes a comprehensive benefits package of health, vision, and dental insurance, time off, and a company-sponsored retirement plan.

Certainly, Milwaukee parishes have the right to fundraise for any group they choose in accordance with the guidance of the Church’s teachings. In the same vein, Catholic parishioners also have the right to report to the media if their parishes decide to finance a Voces de la Frontera strike fund. If your parish participates in funding these efforts, you can send tips to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

More Articles...

Hispanics for School Choice