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The Activist
No stranger to protest, the head of Voces de la Frontera, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, has put herself and her organization at the center of one of the most bitter labor disputes in recent Milwaukee history. Can she win?


Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

When Palermo’s Pizza relocated to the rejuvenated Menomonee Valley in 2006, it was hailed as a model company. The frozen pizza maker expanded its operation to a once-contaminated rail yard, building a 135,000-square-foot plant resembling an Italian villa, and growing its workforce from 270 to 450 workers, many of them Hispanic immigrants living on the South Side. It was the first business to take a chance on the area.

But a couple of years after the pizza factory opened, rumblings of dissatisfaction emerged. Wages were unfairly low, said employees, who also noted that working conditions could be unsafe, and long hours were routinely demanded.


Portraits of Protest

Looking for advice, Spanish-speaking workers turned to Voces de la Frontera, a grassroots immigrants’ rights group that provides free legal aid as well as citizenship and English classes at its South Side workers center. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, its founder and executive director, began interviewing workers in their native tongue to document the claims.

“From the first step, I was always trying to address the issues and discuss them with Palermo’s,” recalls Neumann-Ortiz, the daughter of immigrants herself. “We met with Palermo’s management on several occasions over the years to address some of the changes the workers felt they needed.”

Yet complaints persisted. With Neumann-Ortiz’s guidance, workers talked about forming a union in late 2011. Quietly, clandestinely, petitions circulated, and union authorization cards were signed by more than 75 percent of the workforce, according to organizers.

Hear more about Christine Neumann-Ortiz on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” July 17 at 10 a.m.
“Because we had worked with Palermo’s management for so long,” she says, “we had hoped they would be open as part of their growth to have a more structured relationship with the workers, if that’s what the workers wanted. And they did.”

But in a business climate that had grown more adverse to collective bargaining, Palermo’s management pushed back, publicly denying the employees’ claims of poor working conditions. Unionizing would be a mistake, the owners said, bad for business and bad for the employees. A large sign printed in Spanish appeared at the plant’s entrance, telling employees that a union would have negative consequences. Workers, Neumann-Ortiz says, were told they couldn’t talk about organizing while on the job. Others were told to not talk at all.

And like that, a line was drawn – management vs. worker.

A showdown came just after Memorial Day 2012. Events moved swiftly.

Workers presented signed petitions to Palermo’s, asking the company to recognize the Palermo Workers Union. The next day, the company informed 89 undocumented workers that they were in violation of federal law and needed to reverify their immigrant employment status. Many of the Palermo’s workers were undocumented.

Voces de la Frontera, community leaders and Palmero’s management convened at the Milwaukee Athletic Club, but the meeting failed to bring results. On Friday, June 1, more than 100 workers walked off their jobs and went on strike. Later that day, the union filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming Palermo’s had undermined the workers’ right to organize.

One week later, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers for failing to verify their employment status.

“There’s been a travesty of justice that’s important beyond Palermo’s,” says Neumann-Ortiz, alleging the mass firings were retaliations for organizing a labor union. “This is a national test case on the right of immigrant workers to organize.”

The test case, however, came up short. In November 2012, the NLRB’s regional office dismissed most charges against Palermo’s, and Voces immediately filed an appeal. But today, more than a year since the workers went on strike, Palermo’s Pizza has the federal law on its side. In April, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement notified Palermo’s that it was in compliance with federal employment law. Three weeks later, the

NLRB’s general counsel in Washington denied Voces’ appeal.

But the rulings did nothing to douse Neumann-Ortiz’s take-no-prisoners resolve. “Palermo’s gamed a broken immigration system,” she said following the decision. “They built their company on the backs of these workers, and then tossed them aside when they spoke up for themselves.”

Ignoring Mayor Tom Barrett’s call to move on, Neumann-Ortiz continued to pressure Palermo’s. On the same day that the NLRB’s final decision was released, she joined students in Madison who occupied the office of University of Wisconsin Chancellor David Ward, demanding that he cancel the school’s licensing agreement with the pizza company.

Days later on May 1, for the eighth year in a row, Voces de la Frontera led thousands through the streets of Milwaukee on a march of solidarity for the rights of workers and immigrants.

From a makeshift stage, in front of thousands of like-minded progressives –

AFL-CIO, ACLU, American Federation of Teachers, United Farm Workers, activist priests – Neumann-Ortiz supercharged the marchers. Pumping her fist in the air, she delivered the call to arms for immigration reform and workers’ rights: “Si se puede! Si se puede!” – Yes we can! Yes we can!

Neumann-Ortiz, who stands barely 5 feet tall, is at the epicenter of one of the most bitter labor disputes in Milwaukee in years. In conversation, she speaks softly and laughs easily. But put a bullhorn in her hand or shove a TV camera in her face, and she’s instantly on point, laser-sharp and unwavering.

She’s a familiar figure among her allies and a handy lightning rod for critics; one of Huffington Post’s “50 young progressive activists who are changing America” and an object of scorn for conservative talk radio hosts; a low-key, high-impact upstart among the Latino community’s older organizations and a thorn in the side of the business community, which sees her tactics as a stain on the city’s image.

“She’s soft-spoken, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t carry a big stick,” says Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the United Community Center, a South Side education and social service agency that started in the 1960s. Unlike “legacy” organizations such as the UCC, Voces resists kowtowing to the conventional fundraising network or political parties. Neumann-Ortiz has been critical of immigration reform proposals put forth by both Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat.

“She’s a very passionate, articulate voice that has attracted a certain sector of the Hispanic community that otherwise does not have a voice,” Diaz says. “That has been missing for a while.”

Neumann-Ortiz, 45, grew up witnessing the immigrant’s dream. Her mother was born into poverty in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Her German father grew up in Berlin during World War II. Both earned college degrees, immigrated to the United States, began professional careers and became naturalized citizens.

Joachim Neumann, her father and a metallurgical engineer, worked for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He moved his wife and two daughters from post to post before taking a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Meanwhile, mother Freya Neumann taught for Milwaukee Public Schools and served as a rep with the teachers union. She ran unsuccessfully for Common Council in 2008.

Born in Los Angeles, Neumann-Ortiz lived in Spain, Venezuela, Oregon and Alabama before Milwaukee. She remembers the Ku Klux Klan marching in front of her high school in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a man spitting into her mother’s hair at the local mall. “I only saw two other Latinos – ever – in Tuscaloosa,”

she says. “Once, someone called me a nigger. I didn’t know what to make of it.”

Drawn to reading while growing up, she studied creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated with a degree in English. Her years in Madison awakened the activist in her. She organized student protests in response to racist incidents on campus and participated in rallies in support of the Chinese students at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

With a growing interest in Mexican-American history, Neumann-Ortiz enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Texas-Austin. For her master’s report, she traveled along the U.S.-Mexico border with labor leader Martha Ojeda and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

The number of “maquiladoras,” assembly plants owned by multinational companies in free-trade zones south of the border, increased dramatically after passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement in 1994. But, as Neumann-Ortiz soon saw, factories abruptly closed, leaving hundreds of Mexican workers – most of them uneducated young women – out of work with no severance pay or unemployment benefits.

Labor leader Ojeda organized workers into an independent union after exposing the corruption of Mexico’s government-run union, which had provided maquiladoras with protection from outside unions pushing for higher wages.

Ojeda became a role model to Neumann-Ortiz and inspired her to start a bilingual newspaper in Austin, covering issues relating to workers on both sides of the border. She named the paper Voces de la Frontera – “voices of the border” or “voices of the frontier.”

“On one level, it’s about a physical, national border,” she says of the group’s name. “On the broader level, it’s about a frontier and getting to a better place, that idea of a society where people can fulfill their abilities and elevate the human condition.”

Relocating to Milwaukee in 1998, Neumann-Ortiz began focusing on the emerging immigrants’ rights movement. To pay the bills while devoting her spare time to Voces, she took a job directing the nonprofit Wisconsin Committee on Occupational Safety and Health. In 2000, she was hired by the Campaign for a Sustainable Milwaukee, a North Side workers center, and moved on to MATC in 2002, heading a federal program that helped migrant workers get high school equivalency certificates. In 2005, she resigned from the MATC position, installed herself as full-time executive director of Voces de la Frontera, assembled a board of directors and hired a part-time staff.

It was a natural move, as if she were called to follow in the footsteps of Martha Ojeda.

She doesn’t give much away about her personal life. Neumann-Ortiz is divorced and lives in Shorewood. She has a son enrolled at MATC. She frequently travels to Washington, D.C., to meet with national immigration rights activists or members of Congress. But usually, she’s working at Voces’ main office, a storefront on South Fifth Street.

The office is organized chaos. Student volunteers and immigrants seeking free legal counseling file in and out. Stacks of Voces’ newspapers lean against a cubicle near the door.

“It’s a constant buzz,” says communications director Joe Shansky, a Milwaukee native who spent five years in Latin America before coming to Voces in 2010. “But it’s also a really warm place. Lots of families, lots of kids. And people bring us food a lot.”

Ten full-time staffers, like Shansky, file in daily, Latino and non-Latino. Neumann-Ortiz may be Voces’ public voice, Shansky says, but it’s not a top-down organization. Members pay $20 a year, and they meet regularly to decide the group’s agenda. The group counts 1,200 members, plus 600 students. Another 2,000 are part of its political lobbying arm.

According to its most recent tax report, in 2011, the nonprofit had assets of $613,000, paying Neumann-Ortiz a salary of $53,560. Since 2007, Voces has brought in nearly $3 million, a fraction compared to organizations such as the United Community Center, which reported assets of $75.7 million in the same period. Along with individuals, Voces’ donor base includes organizations such as the national Four Freedoms Fund, which sponsors immigrants’ rights groups, and small businesses within Milwaukee’s Latino community.

“We have made a choice about who gives us money and who we will accept money from,” Neumann-Ortiz says. “We don’t receive much government money or corporate money.”

With offices in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine, one of Voces’ first actions was a get-out-the-vote drive organized by its youth program and Racine’s NAACP branch in 2004. It also lobbied successfully against a bill that would have required proof of U.S. citizenship for driver’s license applicants.

But Voces’ watershed event came in 2006 with the mass protest of House Resolution 4437. Authored by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), the legislation would have made felons of all undocumented immigrants – an estimated 11 million. The bill, which ultimately failed in the Senate, became a flashpoint for immigration reform – and a boon to immigrant rights groups. Voces mobilized an estimated 30,000 Latinos to take off work and take to the streets to symbolize “A Day Without Latinos.” Soon after, The Nation magazine added Voces de la Frontera to its Progressive Honor Roll.

Two months later, May Day marches drew even larger numbers around the country, as the call for immigration reform heightened. Although the legislation died in Congress that summer, Voces made headlines in Wisconsin and beyond.

Voces joined the NAACP again in 2011 to oppose voter ID legislation in Wisconsin. The Republican-driven bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker but was struck down by two circuit courts. In May, a state appeals court overturned a Dane County judge’s ruling that found the state’s voter ID law unconstitutional, but the ID requirement remains blocked because of a ruling in that second separate case.

Also in 2011, Voces initiated a lawsuit claiming the Republican-held Legislature

violated the rights of Latino voters when it redrew legislative district maps. Ruling in favor of Voces, three federal judges reconfigured the boundaries of two South Side districts.

But Voces’ most visible and volatile action to date has been its campaign to help workers at Palermo’s organize a union, a campaign that’s divided community opinion.

The history of family-owned Palermo’s is a storybook picture of the American Dream. It dates back to 1964, when Gaspare “Jack” Fallucca, an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily, started a bakery with his wife Zina on Milwaukee’s East Side. The Falluccas opened a nearby restaurant, Palermo Villa, and then a pizza factory a few years later on the South Side. The company moved into the Menomonee Valley seven years ago, assisted by $26 million in city, state and federal tax subsidies, according to the AFL-CIO’s Center for Strategic Research. It completed a $22 million 100,000-square-foot addition to the plant in 2011. Under the ownership of the Falluccas’ sons, Giacomo and Angelo, Palermo’s Pizza today employs about 585 people.

With the backing of Voces, workers began speaking out. As Roberto Silva told a reporter from National Public Radio: “I start working from 3 p.m. One day, I left 5 a.m. And the next day, they call me to the office [asking] 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.”

Safety was also a concern. Line workers claimed they sometimes fell on greasy factory floors. Reporting safety violations, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Palermo’s $2,000 in May 2008 and $5,000 in October 2010 after employees suffered partially severed fingers. And in May of this year, OSHA issued seven “serious” violations and one “other than serious” violation. On May 7, a worker lost three fingers in a machinery accident at the plant.

Emilio Hernandez started working for Palermo’s in 2006 for $6.75 an hour, running a cheese-grating machine. When he left six years later, he was making $11 an hour, he says. “From the beginning, there was a lot of pressure to never miss work, to not arrive late and to work seven days a week,” he says through a translator. “If anybody did miss work on Saturday or Sunday, they were fired, even with an excuse.”

Palermo’s denied the allegations. “Palermo’s has a long history of respecting its employees and their well-being, paying a competitive wage and providing good benefits,” Chris Dresselhuys, the company’s former director of marketing, said in a media release in July 2012. Today, the company says it pays line workers between $9.30 and $15.97 per hour.

In December 2011, workers began organizing. Complicating the dispute, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had already scheduled an audit of the company’s records to see if it verified the eligibility of workers as required by federal immigration law. When discrepancies were found, Palermo’s issued letters to the 89 immigrant workers, giving them 10 days to provide updated documentation.

Days after the workers went on strike, ICE announced it would stay enforcement until a ruling was made on Voces’ charges of unfair labor practices. Despite the announcement, Palermo’s terminated 75 striking workers who couldn’t verify their legal employment.

The stay, says the company, did not apply to the workers who were unable to document their immigration status. Fearing they could be criminally prosecuted, Palermo’s owners believed they had no choice but to fire the undocumented workers.

“We wished we could have kept them,” says company representative Evan Zeppos, managing director at Laughlin Constable. “They’re great people. But the company did everything they were supposed to do, given the information that was coming out of the national office of ICE.”

Strikers continued picketing outside the plant through summer and into fall, while Voces launched a boycott, calling on retailers like Costco and Roundy’s Supermarkets to drop Palermo’s products. Both companies refused. Students at UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison urged their administrations to end on-campus sales of the pizza.

Public figures showed support for the workers, including state Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee), Milwaukee Ald. Jose Perez and Milwaukee County Supervisor Peggy Romo West, along with the AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers.

Others lined up behind the company –Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin President Maria Monreal-Cameron, Hispanic newspaper El Conquistador, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Mayor Barrett.

“Palermo’s has been an important part of the renaissance in the Menomonee Valley and a great partner to the city,” Barrett says. “The fact that we don’t have a clear immigration policy at the federal level created a twilight zone for the workers and put Palermo’s in a twilight zone themselves.”

But Neumann-Ortiz won’t stand down. She points to outstanding charges that haven’t been addressed by the NLRB: that Palermo’s told workers they’d be fired if they went on strike; that a Palermo’s manager tried to block workers from leaving the plant to strike; that Palermo’s refused to reinstate 11 workers who made unconditional offers to return to work.

Zeppos dismisses the claims. The company has been cleared of all but a handful of relatively minor charges, he says. “They got a 95 on the exam.”

“Christine’s words are inaccurate and false,” he continues. “With her slash-and-burn tactics, she has damaged her credibility to work within the community, and that includes the Hispanic community. I’ve talked to businesses who say, ‘Why should I move to the valley when that’s happening?’ She has hurt the city, she has hurt those workers, she has hurt herself. She’s become toxic property.”

Jesus Salas, a former UW regent and one of the first directors of Milwaukee-based UMOS, United Migrant Opportunity Program, disagrees. “These kinds of criticisms we’ve heard before – ‘You’re going to chase away industry, accelerate automation.’ They’re unfounded, and they go against the contributions that the unions have made,” he says. “You can’t separate the quality of the workforce here in Milwaukee without mentioning the role of the unions.”

As for Neumann-Ortiz, she makes no apologies: “We’re principled in looking out for the interests of immigrants and families. And we believe in speaking truth to power.”

She believes she’s taken the higher ground. “I don’t want to see Palermo’s Pizza close,” she says, pausing to consider. “It’s great that you have an Italian-American family who has been successful and brought jobs to Downtown Milwaukee. But it’s out of balance. They’ve grown at the cost of the workers and working conditions. What about the humanity of the workers?”

Neumann-Ortiz and Voces walk a fine line between attracting support and alienating their constituency.

“Voces is very progressive,” says state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, a South Side Democrat who has marched with Voces. “I’ve talked to some Latino Republicans who just balk and say Voces’ agenda doesn’t fit theirs. But Voces is willing to stick their necks out there. They don’t shy away.”

The United Community Center found itself straddling the fence between Palermo’s management and the Palermo’s workers, says Diaz, UCC’s executive director. “The company, quite frankly, has been very good to us,” he says. “They’ve donated time at the center working with our seniors.”

Yet he does not fault Voces for its motives or tactics. Civil disobedience such as protest marches and labor strikes, he says, has historically been used by new activist movements, often kindled by young volunteers.

“Christine has fulfilled that movement very effectively,” Diaz says, “and that’s hard in this day and age. Many of us cannot do many of the things she does.”

When Voces came on the scene, other Latino groups were willing to take a second seat, says Tony Baez, executive director of the Council for the Spanish Speaking. “We worked with them. We supported them. We marched with them,” he says. “We allowed them to lead because of their ability to mobilize young people.”

But as Voces became more involved with the Palermo’s dispute, there was friction between labor groups and immigrant groups.

“Palermo’s was OK with us,” Baez says. “A lot of our clients were employed by Palermo’s. So when the Palermo’s union campaign started, some of us just stayed out of it. Critics will say Voces should have been more careful not to be thrown into the labor stuff.”

But like Neumann-Ortiz, Salas sees an inextricable link between immigration and labor issues. A Texas native, he worked with the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez on the legendary grape boycott, and later formed Obreros Unidos, “United Workers,” in Wisconsin.

“The recent activities with Palermo’s are not new to Christine’s vision,” Salas says. “As people come into the Voces center, some of the immediate problems they have are problems that go on with their work.”

Organizing workers, challenging voter ID legislation, get-out-the-vote drives, the redistricting lawsuit – Salas credits Voces for taking on a broad-based agenda with pivotal consequences.

“Those are leadership activities that no community organization, Latino or otherwise, has undertaken,” he says. “Voces de la Frontera occupies a unique niche. And whether it’s immigration reform or the workers at Palermo’s or working conditions at other companies, I think they’re going to be around for a while.”

In May, as debate heated up in Congress over a comprehensive immigration reform package, Neumann-Ortiz shifted her focus to issues like family unity and border control. But Palermo’s wasn’t far from her thoughts.

The mayor and the company’s owners were pushing for an up-or-down vote by the current workforce on whether to authorize a plant-wide union.

“We don’t want a rigged election,” Neumann-Ortiz says, softly but emphatically, shaking her head. “Everyone wants a fair and democratic election, and that is no longer possible. Through this mass retaliation, Palermo’s eliminated the right to vote for the majority of the workers, the strikers who were fired. The other workers are scared.”

Waiting for the company to hire back 11 workers who were found by the NLRB to be wrongly terminated and holding out the possibility of organizing Palermo’s workers again someday, Neumann-Ortiz will keep the pressure on. Voces led a “March for a Slice of Justice” to the Mequon home of Palermo’s co-owner Angelo Fallucca on June 1, the one-year anniversary of the strike.

“Palermo’s should be known as not a good corporate citizen,” she says. “That’s the label that’s going to stick to them unless they make good. I think there’s still time for them to make good.”

This article appears in the July 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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