Friday, July 13, 2012

The Old Boys Network in action

By Barbara Miner

It’s not often us mere mortals get to see the Old Boys Network in action. So hats off to Chris Abele, our Milwaukee County executive.

For reasons not completely clear, Abele decided to sound off on the strike at Palermo’s Pizza and write an opinion in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday. 
Abele wrote that he had refrained from a public stance because, “I don’t know what the facts are yet.” But, he added, “I do, however, know Giacomo Fallucca, president and CEO of Palermo’s.”
Apparently that was enough.
It’s hard to remember any time in history when workers and management agreed on the causes and solution to a strike. But rather than get both sides of the story, Abele writes that “I called up Giacomo and asked if he’d be willing to walk me through the events.”
Abele, the silver-spoon philanthropist turned politician, apparently is on a first-name basis with the head of Palermo’s, which three years ago projected sales of more than $150 million, and has gone far beyond its mom-and-pop origins. And he obviously has no trouble getting this all-important CEO to answer his phone calls.
Based on his discussion with Fallucca (unlike Abele, I am not on a first-name basis), Abele writes a summary of the Palermo controversy. The opinion’s conclusions can be summed up in four words: company good, strikers bad.
During his opinion, Abele lays out basic company policies, from health insurance to contributions to a 401(k). He forgets to mention, however, that the company does not offer paid sick days. It’s not an inconsequential issue.
Abele also takes a swipe at reporters who did try to get both sides of the story, and complains that during the news coverage of the strike, facts have been ignored. And this is from someone who admitted he didn’t know the facts until he got the scoop from Palermo’s CEO.
Abele then complains that “people have focused on allegations that are questionable at best and outright lies at worst.”
That’s a sweeping condemnation. Unfortunately, Abele never outlines what the lies are, or who made them. Was it the union? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel? Some Facebook fanatic? And was it a lie about working conditions? About the attempts to organize a union? About the quality of Palermo’s pizzas?
If Abele had read previous stories in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he might have realized there are some pesty and disturbing facts that potentially paint Palermo’s in a less-than-heavenly light.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for instance, carried a lengthy feature on the strike on June 24, with quotes and facts from both sides. 
The story notes that the company acknowledged, in a legal stipulation to the National Labor Relations Board, that it fired 75 workers on June 8 — one week after the strike began. The stipulation also said that 82 new workers had been hired since June 2.
Abele goes on at length about Palermo’s community-minded philanthropy, and what a nice guy Fallucca is, and how hard his immigrant parents worked.
But that’s not the issue. The most fundamental questions are: Do workers have the right to organize to form a union? Do workers have the right to go on strike?

The most perplexing part of Abele’s opinion is why he even wrote the darn thing.
Since his election in the spring of 2011, Abele has written only two other op-eds for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (if the paper’s on-line search engine is to be trusted, which I assume it is.)
One last November came in at 538 words and dealt with the county budget. For a county executive, that makes sense. Then there was a 473-word opinion in April, in which Abele summed up his accomplishments during his first year in office. Again, an appropriate topic.
And now we have 742-word opinion attacking the Palermo’s strikers.
What’s up? This is a private-sector dispute between a private company and its workers. Why is Abele even involved? And why with such passion? And why so one-sidedly?
Don’t you think the county executive would want to focus his energies on pressing issues under his control and responsibility, such as the near collapse of our county bus system? Or the increasingly vacant concourses at Mitchell Airport?
Then again, being a member of the Old Boys Network has its own responsibilities. And Abele, in this regard, has comported himself well.
I am sure he will be richly rewarded when it comes time to raise money for his re-election.
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Correction: This blog originally used a figure for Palermo's pizza sales based on a promotion on its "consumer site." The current  number is based on an article in the Business Journal.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

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