Palermo's Pizza - a story of immigrants past and present

October 22, 2012

The Palermo Villa is designed to look like an Italian village.

For generations, the American Dream has been a pervasive part of our culture: work hard, and you and your children will be better off. But the country is different now than it was when it became known as the Land of Opportunity.

The United States no longer boasts a stable middle class. Instead, we have people getting by - not getting ahead. And the immigrant experience that first brought us the idea of the American Dream is radically different today.

It’s late on a Sunday afternoon, but 78-year-old Henry Piano is hard at work in his downtown Milwaukee law practice. He’s preparing for a court appearance tomorrow.

It looks like a typical law office...dark wood, stuffed leather chairs and legal reference books lining his bookshelves. But look closely at the pictures behind his desk, at large picture of the Mediterranean coastline and you see reminders of Piano’s Italian heritage.

It’s the classic story. Piano’s first generation: his father, Nick, came here from Sicily around the turn of the last century, with no English, a little bit of money, but plenty of desire for hard work and to create a better future. 

“My father had a great emphasis on education,” said Piano, as he shows me a picture of the family tavern where he grew up. “He would always say, 'I don’t want you to go through what I’ve gone through.'”

His parents worked so hard that they only took one vacation in their life - and they didn’t even like it - they preferred working. It’s a value Piano shares. He says “you don’t have to take a vacation to be happy”, that happiness comes from his life: the realization of his dream.

“It’s the same dream that Jack came here with,” he said.

By Jack - Piano is talking about Gaspare Falluca, one of his best friends who just passed away. Falluca was the founder of Palermo’s Pizza. The national frozen pizza company started as a small bakery on Milwaukee’s East Side - a few blocks from Brady Street, and the tavern Henry Piano’s father owned.

It’s a neighborhood where immigrants built their businesses.

Jack, or Papa Falluca, as he was known, had humble beginnings. One of his first jobs was a dishwasher. Then, he did construction work, mostly in terrazzo and ceramic tile work that he had learned in Italy.

After a few years, he went into the bakery business with his nephews. Eventually, he struck out on his own, opening a small bakery on Milwaukee’s East Side. 

“It was a seven day a week business,” Piano said, adding that Falluca would work all day and night. “My wife would talk to his wife and she’s ask ‘Where’s Jack?’ And she’d say, ‘Well, where else? He’s at the bakery. He may have to sleep on the bags there’.”

Eventually, he opened a restaurant. It became popular - even with entertainers like Frankie Avalon, who would stop by an after hours meal. But then he sold that business, and bought another bakery, with the idea of going into frozen pizza. That venture would secure his family’s future.

“His idea was to build an enormous business out of hard work, and teach that same thing to his children, which they have,” he said.

Today, Palermo’s is the fifth-largest frozen pizza producer in the country. The company employs more than 350 people from a production facility across town near Milwaukee’s Miller Field.

You can see Papa’s Italian heritage from the distance. The facility is designed after a 16th century Tuscan villa.

Inside, the rooms have Italian names like Il Spacio. And if you don’t speak Italian, not to worry.

Marketing Director Chris Dresselhuys gave me a tour of the facility, where they produce more than 100 million pizzas a year. He warned me to be alarmed when I used the ladies’ restroom. Inside there are recordings that teach you conversational Italian phrases.

Few people on the floor making the pizzas these days are likely to speak Papa Fallucca’s native tongue. In fact, just outside the worker lounge area, the company has its mission statement up in English, Spanish, and Burmese - many refugees work at the plant. They’re picking up work that until recently was done mostly by Mexican immigrants.

Palermo employees are “valued members of our family”, Dresselhuys said, noting that workers receive health and life insurance and a retirement plan, regardless of how much they contribute.

But just outside that villa, many workers disagree.

A protest line of former employees carry signs asking people to boycott Palermo's.

It’s been going on since the end of May, when about 75 workers went on strike against the company over its wages and working conditions.

“The main thing was to make more pizzas, and make more and more and more,” said Roberto Silva, 34, who started working at Palmero’s in 1999.

Silva started in production for $6.50 an hour and had worked his way up to the warehouse, where he was making $17 an hour. His shift started at 3 p.m.

“One day I left at 5 a.m., and the next day, they called me to the office,” Silva said, to ask him why he left without finishing the job.

Silva says he sometimes worked as much as 90 hours as week. He got paid overtime for his work. But he says he often wasn’t treated well. I asked him how different it was from working conditions in Mexico. His response?

“Over here, it’s just they don’t care about the people, they just want to make money, and they don’t care about the people.”

Here’s where the story gets tricky. In early May, the workers say they presented a petition to management stating they wanted to form a union.

Around the same time, the company sent out letters to at least 75 of the same workers asking them to prove their immigration status.

The letter said Palermo’s was in the middle of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit. Because of that audit, the government had decided these workers needed to provide additional proof of their legal right to work in the U.S.

ICE sent Palermo’s a letter saying it was “staying” further action regarding those workers’ documentation.

“Under the Obama administration, the government has really dramatically ramped up the use of civil audits as an enforcement tool,” said Dan Brown, who used to work for ICE but is now an immigration lawyer in the Washington DC office of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy.

Brown said these audits have gone basically zero to about 500 in 2008.

“They’re on pace this fiscal year to do about 4,000 audits of employers nationwide,” Brown said.

And Brown and other labor experts say this is the first they’ve ever heard of the ICE suspending an investigation this way. Brown added that the timing of that letter makes things really tricky.

“Staying the action at that point probably would put any employer in a real quandry about what to do,” Brown said. The company could face fines of around $3,000 per worker, or even face criminal prosecution with the possibility of jail time.

That’s because the letter didn’t say the investigation was concluded - just halted until further notice.

Palermo’s fired the workers.

“The company has no choice but to follow the law,” Dresselhuys said. “The audit is truly between the federal government and the employee.”

The whole thing is now before the National Labor Relations Board. The organization that has represented the workers - Voces de la Frontera - says the immigration tactics are a form of intimidation.

“No one - not an employer or anyone else - can use ICE as form of  intimidation or retaliation for workers that are asserting their federally protected rights to organize collectively,” said Christine Neumann Ortiz, Voce’s director.

But I wondered how Papa Falluca - the Italian immigrant who worked his way up from being a construction worker to creating this national pizza company - would feel about everything that’s happened. His family wasn’t available to talk.

But his friend, Henry Piano provided this explanation.

“I knew what his philosophy was and that was to treat your employees kind and to remember you came from the same thing,” he said when I asked him what Falluca - who died three weeks ago - thought about the labor dispute.

“When he came here, we worked for very low wage and he wanted to make sure their employees to have the same thing. There’s nothing to prevent those folks from going into their own business like he did, and to start their own business like he did. But to complain about it is, I think, a little tough."

Silva doesn’t see his and the other workers cause as complaining. He says he just wants dignity as a worker - and a voice.

“When you want something and you fight for it, I think you’re going to get it. It was not just for us, it’s going to be good for the company and for us, for everybody,” he said.

It’s not that Roberto thinks his American dream should come easy. Part Two of this story explains how different the immigrant experience is from decades past.

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