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Labor Strife Pits Immigrants Against Immigrants


And a strike by workers in Milwaukee, is pitting a group of Mexican immigrants against their employer - a family-owned business that itself was founded by immigrants. As WBEZ's Niala Boodhoo reports, the dispute - involving workers and their legal status - reflects struggles of other immigrants in the workplace.

NIALA BOODHOO, BYLINE: You could call Palermo's Pizza the quintessential American success story. The company was started by Italian immigrant Gaspare Fallucca, from a small bakery and restaurant on Milwaukee's East Side.

CHRIS DRESSELHUYS: So that very pleasant aroma of tomatoes that you're smelling right now, is coming from the production floor. So let's open the door, and we'll just take a little peek in there.

BOODHOO: That's Palermo's Chris Dresselhuys, showing off the company, which today is still run by the Fallucca family, but is the fifth-largest frozen pizza business in the country. Palermo's makes their own brand, and brands for big stores like Costco; in all, about 100 million pizzas a year. The facility reflects the family's Italian heritage. The building is styled after a 16th century Tuscan villa, complete with fountains. There are even recordings in the bathroom that teach Italian.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now you try repeating it after the speaker, part by part.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: L'italiano.

BOODHOO: But on the factory floor, many of Palermo's 350 workers are unlikely to speak Italian. More than a few are refugees from Burma, who are now picking up work that was most recently done by Mexican immigrants.

DRESSELHUYS: Behind the reception desk, there's a saying printed on the wall. It's "Saluti Dalla Famiglia," which is Italian for "Welcome To The Family."

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in unison) Boycott Palermo!

BOODHOO: Many workers beg to differ.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in unison) Boycott Palermo!

BOODHOO: This protest, outside the factory, has been going on since early in the summer after about 100 workers here, tried to form a union.

ROBERTO SILVA: I think the main thing was to make more pizzas - make more and more and more.

BOODHOO: Roberto Silva had worked at Palermo's for 13 years. He started making pizza dough for $6.50 an hour; and until recently, earned $17 an hour operating a forklift. But most workers say their pay averages closer to $9 an hour. And they're unhappy with working conditions.

Frozen pizza sales track the school year, so production gets busier in the fall. Silva says even though he got paid overtime, he felt that he was forced to work 80 hours a week, sometimes seven days in a row.

SILVA: I start working from 3 p.m. One day, I left 5 a.m. And the next day, they call me to the office - why I left at 5 a.m. without finish the job? And I say, come on, it was 5 a.m. I was tired - after 14 hours. And they say no, you can't do that. You have to finish the job.

BOODHOO: Palermo's Dresselhuys denies these allegations and says the company provides benefits like health care, and even contributes to a retirement plan for workers.

Here's where the story gets tricky. In early May, the workers presented a petition to form a union. Around the same time, the company sent out letters to 75 of those same workers, asking them to re-verify their immigration status. The letter said Palermo's was in the middle of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit, and the workers had to provide additional proof of their right to work in the U.S.

The organization representing the workers - Voces de la Frontera - calls that letter an anti-union tactic. Christine Neumann Ortiz is Voce's director.

CHRISTINE NEUMANN ORTIZ: No one - not an employer, or anyone else - can use ICE as form of intimidation or retaliation for workers that are asserting their federally protected rights to organize collectively.

BOODHOO: After Voces complained, ICE told Palermo's it was staying further action.

DAN BROWN: I've never heard of a stay happening before.

BOODHOO: That's Dan Brown. He used to work for ICE, and is now an immigration attorney in Washington. Brown says these types of audits are now routine - even though he's never heard of one being halted before.

Because the letter suspended the investigation, many workers didn't provide documentation. So Palermo's fired them. The company says it had no choice. The whole thing is now before the National Labor Relations Board, which is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, many workers like Roberto Silva have found other jobs. Like Papa Fallucca, Silva says he came here looking for a better life. He just wants to be treated with respect. And he still hopes he'll be able to return to his job at Palermo's.

BOODHOO: For NPR News, I'm Niala Boodhoo Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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