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A new voice for low-income workers

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

In Los Angeles, the CLEAN Carwash Campaign last year won a union contract, the first of its kind, for the mostly Latino workers at Bonus Car Wash.

In Boston, taxi drivers, most of whom were Haitian, formed an association to get help in dealing with a variety of workplace issues, such as rate increases, licensing fees and hours.

And in Milwaukee, a 5-month-old strike was started by workers at Palermo's, a frozen pizza manufacturer where efforts to form a union have clashed with immigration enforcement and drawn national attention along with a boycott campaign. The workers received organizational support from Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant and worker rights center.

While the three efforts differ, they are all part of the worker center movement, a relatively new and growing model for organizing, advocating and giving voice to low-income workers who are often immigrants.

Five worker centers existed nationally in 1992, said Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, who has written the book “Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream.”

Today there are an estimated 214 centers, she said during a telephone interview.

The worker centers often, but not always, collaborate with unions, such as the carwash workers who teamed up with the United Steelworkers and the Palermo's workers who got help from Voces.

But not all worker centers are the same.

“I see them as a social movement with lots of expressions,” Fine said.

Some are very large nonprofits that may have an organizing arm, while others work on public policy issues such as language access in the courts, hospitals and schools.

Fine believes many factors led to the rise of the workers centers.

“There was the uptick in undocumented immigration and the rise of immigration in general between 1990 and 2000, along with the decline in unionization,” she said. “It got harder for unions to organize.”

But workers started experiencing issues such as problems getting paid, health and safety, racism and ethnic harassment, she said.

Companies also restructured, adding subcontractors and independent contractors outside of the firm's workforce, which presented more uncertainties in the workplace.

The earliest worker centers developed along the Mexican border around El Paso, Texas, among female factory workers on both sides of the border in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Fine said.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz started Voces in 2001 while she was coordinator of a GED program for migrants at Milwaukee Area Technical College. In 2006 she moved to Voces full time to develop the center.

One of its biggest efforts has been organizing some of the state's largest marches for comprehensive immigration reform. The organization offers citizenship classes and runs voter registration drives.

“Worker centers are absolutely the new wave of organizing workers that developed organically by and for low-wage workers and immigrants,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “We're the watchdog who lets them know their rights.”

In 2008, Voces won an unfair labor practice case with the National Labor Relations Board against Ashley Furniture Industries for prohibiting workers from speaking with anyone about their employment and for questions related to identification issues.

In 2011, Voces filed a complaint with the NLRB against Esperanza Unida on behalf of two workers who said they were fired in retaliation for complaining to Voces about not getting paid by the job training agency. A settlement resulted in which the two workers received 100 percent back pay.

Robert Silva went to work at Palermo's in 1999 in the bakery and worked his way up to a forklift operator in the warehouse. He had tried to resolve some workplace issues by going through human resources, but that failed, he said. So in 2008 he went to Voces.

“We needed more help because we didn't know what to do about our rights,” he said.

When Silva started at the company it was smaller, he said. But when it moved into its new 100,000-square-foot building in the Menomonee Valley, the pressures grew to produce more and work faster for the company to grow, he said.

Neumann-Ortiz has files dating to 2008 that show worker petitions complaining about the company's process of checking Social Security numbers of some workers, and about health and safety issues. In 2008 she held a meeting with the vice president for administration and Palermo's president and CEO Giacomo Fallucca to discuss some of these issues, according to correspondence between Voces and company officials.

The file includes a handwritten note from Fallucca thanking Neumann-Ortiz for the meeting.

“I appreciate your passion and commitment to the Latino community and your dedication to causes and issues,” he wrote.

In 2010 and 2011 there were more worker complaints, ranging from scheduling and production to discrimination and favoritism by some supervisors. In November 2011 workers decided to form a union, Neumann-Ortiz said.

Chris Dresselhuys, director of marketing for Palermo's, said he was unaware of any of these meetings or petitions.

He has called allegations about pay, safety and other issues “categorically false.” Pay is comparable to what other companies the same size pay unskilled workers, he said. Palermo's offers paid time off; a company-sponsored retirement plan; health, vision and dental insurance for full-time employees; and free pizza every day, he said.

“Voces has manufactured a controversy where none existed in a shameful attempt to manipulate our employees,” he said. It's part of Voces' efforts to push unionization, he said.

Dresselhuys noted that one worker, Santos Tase Soto, filed an NLRB complaint in September contending Voces had coerced and harassed employees. Neumann-Ortiz denies the allegation.

Dresselhuys said the company's time line of events began February 2011 when immigration officials notified Palermo's it was conducting an audit of employees dating back to 1986. In late May the company determined that 89 employees needed to provide additional documentation, he said.

About the same time, Palermo workers filed a petition signed by 150 workers asking the company to recognize the union. The company refused.

Voces filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, contending the immigration audit was used by the company to thwart the union effort.

But Dresselhuys said the company was following the law and faced criminal and civil penalties if it failed to get the necessary worker documentation.

On June 1, about 100 workers went on strike. On June 7, at the request of the United Steelworkers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement withheld further action related to the notice of suspect documents because of the labor dispute.

The next day the company fired about 75 workers. Others have left, and replacement workers have been hired.

The NLRB is expected to rule soon on the unfair labor practice charge.

The steelworkers union has helped workers organize a national boycott of Palermo's, which makes frozen pizza under store brand names, including the giant retailer Costco.

“Our involvement with the immigration workforce extends beyond Palermo's and Voces,” said Maria Soma, assistant to the director of organizing for the steelworkers. The union's work with the carwash campaign led to relationships with worker centers around the country, she said.

The workers, like Silva, said they didn't count on a prolonged strike. Neumann-Ortiz, too, said she didn't anticipate the strike would drag on and that the company would take such a hard line.

Georgia Pabst is a writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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