MILWAUKEE — When Roberto Silva first arrived in Milwaukee, from Mexico, 13 years ago, he had hopes of working and going to school.
“When your family isn’t rich, if they don’t have too much money, you have to make a choice,” he said simply. “If you want to a higher education, or you have to work to eat. So I chose to eat, because it was no choice.”
In 1999, he started working at Palermo’s frozen pizza company in Milwaukee. That gave him a chance to send money back to his family in Mexico and, he hoped, have enough to build a life for himself back home. The company is now embroiled in a bitter labor disbute, and Roberto, 34, has realized the shortcomings of the American Dream.
His story is more common than not today. Generations of immigrants prior of Roberto's were welcomed, as were their dreams of making better lives for themselves and their families. But a lot has changed since then.
Roberto picked Milwaukee because his older brother was already here. He says he knew this could provide better options than in Mexico, where he had worked odd jobs in carpentry, gardening and helping out a mechanic.
“I made the dough,” he said, adding he learned how to mix the flour and yeast into the machines. He made $6.50/hour. “And then I moved to production for another year, and they gave me 25 cents. Then, I was working in packaging and they gave me another 25 cents.”
Roberto’s proud of how he worked his way up the ranks of the company, learning to use all the machines. This year, he made $17 an hour in the warehouse, operating a forklift. That’s pretty good pay for warehouse work in Milwaukee. And, it's higher than most at the factory, where workers say they make closer to $9 an hour.
Frozen pizza sales track the school year. When school starts, production ramps up. During the busy season, Roberto says it wasn’t unusual for him to work an 80-hour week. He says he often worked six days in a row – and sometimes seven.
“And then everything changed,” he said. “My girlfriend got pregnant. And because it was not just me, now it was my family, I was asking if I was going to do this for the rest of my life. And my answer was no, it was something I can’t keep doing.”
AN AMERICAN FAMILY
Roberto has a five-year-old son, and a daughter who was born earlier this year. Inside the single family house he rents, he and his cousins are sitting on black couches, watching a Mexican soccer match on television. His nephew, little Jorgie, is playing on the floor with some new toys.
Roberto’s older brother, Jorge said he, too, intended to return to Mexico, but then he got married and had kids. He’s since gotten divorced, and now supports himself and his kids separately. He’s appreciative of how much more money he can earn in the United States compared to Mexico.
A job that would pay $15 an hour here would pay about $5 in Mexico, Jorge estimated. “It’s a big difference,” he said.
He teased his oldest, a teenager, by saying she’s living her American dream, and doesn’t even like to eat tacos anymore. His kids are American. She laughed and said that’s not true.
Roberto and his girlfriend share the rent with Roberto’s cousin and her husband. All of them worked at Palermo’s. Roberto’s brother, Jorge, also lives here. In all - seven people live in the house.
Well, except this weekend, because Jorge’s three children are visiting.
Buff thinks it’s a great example of how past generations of immigrants banded together, like Robert and Jorge’s families are doing today.
“There,” she said, pointing at a small, yellow house, a shotgun-style that has a visible basement level. “These skinny little houses that they sort of pulled up.”
Buff said it always sounds like a joke when she explains it, but Polish flats were built when families saved to buy a lot and built a tiny house on it. Then, when they had enough money, they literally lifted the house up and built another floor underneath: instant rental space and additional revenue.
“It’s a great immigrant strategy,” she said. “It created economic mobility and the possibility of land ownership.”
We know the housing crisis prevented that from coming easy. That’s one way immigrant life has changed, but there’s another, bigger difference.
Rachel teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She often tells her students that when her great-grandfather left czarist Russia to come here, he was an illegal immigrant.
“When the ship docked in New York harbor he jumped ship,” she said. “If somebody did that now we would say, ‘illegal immigrant!’”
But because this was before there was such a thing, Buff said her grandfather got to have a good life, success and send for family. He became “a real patriarch.”
The criminalization of immigration first happened in 1929, Buff said. But it’s not until 1965 - when current system of immigration laws were created - that the notion of an “illegal” immigrant became not just part of U.S. law, but of the culture.
Ironically, the signing of the Immigration Act of 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson was at the time seen as a “highwater mark in civil rights,” Buff said. And immigrants became overwhelmingly Asian and Latin American.
“And so suddenly there are these waves of brown people coming, and there’s this fear, cultural and economic fears, that category of illegal alien becomes very useful to explain things,” she said. “So it becomes a racial fear and kind of weird ideological fear - can we tolerate these new people?”
Roberto said he’s experienced that prejudice firsthand at work.
“It was another Hispanic person that told everybody we don’t have rights,” he said, shaking his head. “I was mad. I was upset.”
He said he can’t describe his feeling in English, trailing off for a moment.
“Estaba disgudo, deceptionado, frustrado,” he said. (“I felt unhappy, disappointed - frustrated").
THE PALERMO’S STRIKE
Other workers felt the same way. Just outside Palermo’s headquarters and production facility in Milwaukee, a picket line formed.
Workers lined up with signs that read “No Justice, No Pizza”. They chanted: “Palermos! Eschucha! Estaba en la lucha!” (Palermo’s! Listen! We’re not giving up this struggle!)
This protest has been going on outside the Palermo’s pizza factory since June. The fight pitted the largely immigrant Latino workforce against a family-owned business – started by an Italian immigrant in the 1950s.
Milwaukee worker activist group Voces de la Frontera has been trying to help Roberto and other workers form a union. But around the same Palermo’s workers said they wanted to unionize, the company sent out letters saying many workers had to re-verify their immigration status.
The U.S. government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office began auditing the company in 2011. There have been thousands of these audits during the current administration.
Because ICE tries to stay out of labor disputes, officials later told Palermo’s they would temporarily suspend the investigation. But Palermo’s still fired all the workers.
The company's spokeman Chris Dresselhuys said they had no choice.
“Frankly, we were extremely upset when the government took their action and when we realized that there was nothing we could do for them other than to comply with the law,” he said. “It truly is an unfortunate situation”.
Dresselhuys also flatly denied all the claims Roberto and other workers made. He pointed out that the company offers competitive pay, health benefits, life insurance and pays into a retirement plan for workers, regardless of how much they contribute.
He also pointed to how long many of its employees have worked at the company.
“Palermo’s has a long history of caring deeply for its employees and providing a fulfilling and enjoyable work environment. The claims and scurrilous accusations simply are untrue,” he said. “Many employees who were affected by the ICE audit had been here for more than 10 years, which I believe indicates a very different work environment than that characterization.”
Roberto and some co-workers say they first went to Voces four years ago, to learn about what rights they should have as workers. In Roberto’s case, it wasn’t about how he was being treated - it was about what to do watching others.
“My boss told me, ‘Don’t worry about the other people. Who puts puts the food on your table? You, so just take care of you and don’t worry about other people’,” he said.
He said they told him to act as if 'nothing' was happening. But he couldn’t.
DECLINE OF A SOCIAL CONTRACT?
Annette Bernhardt is with the National Employment Law Project. She said she often hears from company officials who think paying workers overtime is voluntary, not legally mandatory.
That’s one sign of deteriorating work conditions, she said, as companies continue to focus on cost-cutting.
“Some folks call it the decline of the social contract, but I think if you’re on the ground in these low wage industries, it is very real in terms of how employers think about their workers, their obligations to provide them with decent wages and safe workplaces,” she said. “I think those norms have really deteriorated, especially in industries with lots of vulnerable workers like immigrant workers.”
Roberto was one of the workers fired over documentation. The case is before the National Labor Relations Board. The union asked that all the fired workers be reinstated, and that the NLRB take charge of verifying the worker’s papers.
In the the meantime, Roberto’s found another job. He’s working at a warehouse 45 minutes away in Waukegan. The pay isn’t as good - $14 an hour - but he likes that he only works about 40 to 50 hours a week.
When Roberto first started at Palermo’s, he tried to go to school. He got his G.E.D., and started taking classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College. But he was tired from working and it was hard to keep up, so he dropped out.
Unlike other immigrants, who want to open a business, Roberto just wants to get a degree. Now he feels like he can.
“It’s better because I’m working five days a week,” he said. “Now, I have more time. So for me, right now, I can spend more time with my family. Plus, I can go back to school.”
He laughs and said he thinks maybe he might be 'old,' but he still has the same idea he had 13 years ago.
“I know if I go to school, it’s going to be better for me and my family,” he said.
Roberto told me that he’s hopeful he will work at Palermo’s again. He liked his job there - he just wants everyone to be treated fairly, and he’s glad that he spoke up.
He said he spoke up for his children. He has two main hopes for them: that they’ll go to college, and that they’ll learn from his experience to speak up for themselves.