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Former employees protest Hawkeyes’ official pizza company

BY RISHABH R. JAIN | OCTOBER 30, 2012 6:30 AM

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Former employees of Palermo’s Pizza, the official pizza of the Iowa Hawkeyes, were at the University of Iowa protesting against the frozen pizza giant on Monday.

Palermo’s officials maintain the protest is based on false allegations and misinformation.

The five-month-old national protest now in its Iowa leg began when approximately 100 workers were fired from Palermo’s Milwaukee plant, where the company is based, after a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit — according to Palermo’s administration officials.

But Enrique Martinez, one of the former workers present at the event, said the problem is not workers’ immigration status but horrendous working conditions at Palermo’s Milwaukee plant.

“Work at Palermo’s is about machined workers who can produce as much as possible,” Martinez said through a translator. “I used to do the job of two people. The floor was sometimes covered in oil, and I had to run across the floor to get my work done, all for the $7.25 that I started off with. We had to constantly keep running, and accidents were inevitable.”

He said that in his seven years of service, his wage only increased by $2 an hour.

Many UI student organizations have taken up the cause of the workers and were present at the hourlong presentation in Schaeffer Hall on Monday. UI Amnesty International and UI Students Abolishing Slavery have sent letters to UI President Sally Mason, requesting her to abandon Palermo’s Pizza as UI’s official pizza for sporting events.

The response, members said, has not been substantive.

Raúl de la Torre, one former Palermo’s employee who also spoke at that event, said he wanted to make sure his voice was heard.

“It was a constant feeling of disrespect at Palermo’s,” he said. “We were being obligated to work four months straight without any rest. Many of us needed to get a day off and were constantly denied even in cases of medical excuses. Whenever an accident happened, they concentrated not on tending to the accident but tried to blame the workers by giving them alcohol tests. If we missed more than three times, we would be fired.”

Martinez noted that instead of producing the baseline of 35,000 pizzas a day, workers were forced to produce around 90,000 pizzas a day.

Chris Dresselhuys, the director of marketing at Palermo’s, said none of Palermo’s 450 employees are on strike, although he acknowledges the protests against the company.

“There has been quite a bit of misinformation put out there about the situation,” he said. “You have to be an employee in order to strike. The individuals that would be speaking at the University of Iowa are no longer employees of the company.”

Dresselhuys also said Palermo’s has been a sponsor of UI athletics for more than five years and deems Iowa as an important market for its products.

Kyra Seay, the president of UI Students Abolishing Slavery, said she believes it will not be too difficult to get UI officials to abandon Palermo’s because the UI has a major stake in issues concerning human rights.

“The University of Iowa has a huge stake in ethical business practices and many of our writing programs revolve around human-rights issues,” she said. “To me, I think we should be concerned with everything from how tuition is attained, how professors are paid, and what pizza we serve at UI events.”


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