By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – A movement pushing a boycott against a Milwaukee pizza maker embroiled in a bitter organized labor fight is putting pressure on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to join the cause, according to a letter obtained by Wisconsin Reporter.
But the demand that a publicly funded institution boycott a private industry again raises questions of appropriate higher education involvement in labor-management battles.
A letter from the varied groups backing the Palermo Workers Union — a labor campaign to organize Milwaukee-based Palermo Pizza — urges UW-M to “lend its support to the boycott of Palermo’s” by refusing to sell food products from the company on campus.
The letter, signed “in Solidarity” by University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan teacher Debra Desmoulin, asserts UW-M is considering participating in the boycott and that it has made similar commitments in the past.
“To not participate in this boycott would be inconsistent with the UW System’s mission to ‘serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities’ and to promote “public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” the letter states.
Reached Tuesday by Wisconsin Reporter, Desmoulin said she did not know the extent of the letter but that she was asked to send it along by members of the Milwaukee Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS – a group of students and youth who “actively fight oppression,” according to the organization’s website.
Supporters of the Palermo’s union movement and the two-month-old strike at the Milwaukee factory include Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee-based immigration rights organization, perhaps widely known for its lawsuit against Wisconsin’s Voter ID law. Also on board, some UW-M professors and Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association, according to Joe Shansky, organizer with Voces de La Frontera.
UW-M Tom Lujak told Wisconsin Reporter the university did receive the letter, sent to the university’s restaurant operations director Scott Hoffland, among others.
Hoffland was out of the office Tuesday attending to an ill family member, Lujak said, so he could not comment on the extent of contracts or relationships between the university and Palermo.
Lujak did say UW-M is looking at the request and taking it seriously as it does with all communications from the public.
Shansky said when supporters of the organized labor drive met with university officials in June they were told UW-M would make final decisions on food service contracts in mid-August.
“They said if there was still a dispute going on (between labor and Palermo Pizza), they would consider pulling it,” he said.
The University of Wisconsin System, however, bristled at the labor group’s contention that to “not participate in this boycott would be inconsistent with the UW System’s mission to ‘serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities’ and to promote ‘public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition.’”
UW-System legal counsel told Wisconsin Reporter the group’s assertion is a broad application of the state statute, and that the call to boycott Palermo has not reached a systemwide level.
Chris Dresselhuys, director of marketing for Palermo’s, in a statement to Wisconsin Reporter called the boycott attempts “an intimidation tactic.”
Union organizers are pushing the boycott nationally.
Recently, a mix of youth, community and faith-based organization backed by unions, rallied at mega retailer Costco’s in Middleton. The chain reportedly is Palermo’s largest retailer.
“The baseless allegations made against Palermo’s represent a pattern of deception and obfuscation that is designed to harm our company, our employees and community,” Dresselhuys said.
The dispute goes back to late May, when some 150 workers at the Milwaukee plant, the brunt of production employers, signed a petition seeking to unionize.
As the petition was going out, the company asked 89 immigrant works to provide documentation verifying their U.S. work status.
A week and a half later, most of the employees were fired.
Irate employees contend the move was meant to stamp out the union campaign, while management asserts Palermo’s was required by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, to conduct an audit of employee work status.
ICE, driven by concerns over illegal immigration, has in recent years picked up the pace in investigating illegals in the workplace, and demanding employers do a better job of policing their work force.
Palermo’s says the labor dispute was “put into motion by an organization demanding that Palermo’s violate the federal immigration law.”
A new unionization vote is expected, although it has been pushed back in part by feuding unions positioning to represent the worker and a challenge to a National Labor Relations Board decision that would allow replacement workers to vote – something Shansky admits would kill the campaign.
But Voces and the labor movement won a critical battle in the pizza war, thanks to the Obama administration’s order that Palermo’s suspend its immigration audit, even with employees expected to be illegal immigrants.
“All we ask is that Palermo’s respond to that order,” he said, adding that the company must bring back the fired employees.
Each side contends the other is lying.
Each may be.
Time will tell whether a public university involves itself in the dispute.
Wisconsin’s universities have engaged in protest of private companies in the past, most notably through the system’s investment holdings.
In 2004, the system’s Business and Finance Committee passed a motion to divest of Tyson Foods Inc. holdings – bonds valued at $200,000. The motion also called on the system to screen Tyson securities from future investments until a labor dispute at the company’s Jefferson, Wis., plant was settled.
“This action was taken as one of solidarity with the student pressure that had resulted earlier in boycotts of Tyson products at the Madison and Milwaukee campuses until the resolution of the dispute,” according to the U.W. System website.
Following the end of the strike, the UW Trust Funds informed its investment managers that the Tyson screen was being lifted.
Email Matt Kittle at email@example.com