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 layerofthefox@gmail.com.

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