By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Nov 02, 2012 at 5:26 AM

Whether or not to boycott Palermo's Pizza has divided a lot of people in the city, including members at Outpost Natural Foods.

Outpost began selling organic varieties of Palermo's pizza about two years ago and decided to continue selling the products after workers at the Menomonee Valley-based frozen pizza company went on strike in June.

Palermo's workers claim they were working in unsafe environments for wages that did not reflect the company's growth and attempted to form a union. Multiple employees were terminated, and there is debate over whether they were terminated for attempting to organize or, as the company claims, due to a lack of documentation of workers' immigration status.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz is the executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a Walker's Point-based organization that provides information and support to low wage workers and helps them organize unions. She believes the Outpost is not practicing its mission.

"By not standing with the workers and their families, the Outpost is not standing by its own mission statement and values," she says. "Cooperatives are set up as an alternative to the free market where profit rules. They are supposed to have different standards and make considerations based on ethical, environmental and health considerations. That is why cooperatives were created."

The Willy Street Co-op in Madison and the Riverwest Co-op, 733 E. Clarke St., discontinued selling Palermo's pizza when the strike began.

"This is a nationally-supported struggle," says Neumann-Ortiz. "It's shameful that a co-op in Milwaukee would even hesitate to stand with workers."

Pam Mehnert is the general manager for Outpost and she says Outpost is following its current boycotting policy which was developed about 25 years ago when there were labor disputes related to the migrant grape workers in California. At the time, Outpost posted information about the disputes so that shoppers could decide whether to purchase the grapes or join the boycott of the grapes.

A similar approach is being taken during the strike at Palermo's. Outpost decided not to pull the pizzas from its freezers, but does have information about the boycott posted on the co-op's website and in its stores to inform shoppers about the conflict. Mehnert believes it's Outpost's responsibility to provide balanced information to shoppers, but ultimately it's a customer's decision whether or not they want to buy the pizza.

"As a co-op, Outpost makes decisions every day in response to what we feel are the best interests of our 17,000 owners. We attempt to represent a balanced approach to their interests, not just the interests of one specific group or another, and not just the most vocal of any group," says Mehnert.

Mehnert says the boycott policy depends on consumer demand to influence any decision to keep the product or pull the product. The co-op has tracked the weekly sales of the product by store location since the consumer boycott began, but has not seen a significant change in sales.

"Some weeks sales have been up, some weeks down, but on average we are selling the same amount of pizzas per week as we sold before the boycott began," says Mehnert. "Since pizza is not a commodity item like grapes or bananas, people have other options. We just haven't seen them switch their purchases to other pizzas in this case."

Quinn Wilder, who has been a member for more than 20 years, is boycotting Outpost because he finds the decision hypocritical and not in the spirit of a cooperative.

"I'm boycotting because I think the membership is being betrayed by the board. Solidarity is a critical ethic for a community's health in a hyper capitalist economic system, and coop members expect the board to embody that ethic in its policies and practices," says Wilder.

The Outpost is a union shop, represented by a United Food and Commercial Workers local since 1979.

"We believe workers have a right to organize, and we know management has rights in these matters as well. What works well for us is an open and honest relationship where the common interests of the union and the co-op are well represented," says Mehnert.

Before making a decision, the Outpost met with Palermo's and Voces de la Frontera which resulted in the updating of information on the website, but not the end of Palermo's pizza sales. Also, Outpost donated 45 store gift cards valued at $50 each to the strike fund benefiting the striking Palermo's workers.

"We continue to be the only area grocer who has gone to great lengths to inform our shoppers about the boycott, rather than simply pulling the product from our shelves and letting the issues become silent," says Mehnert.

Neumann-Ortiz says the workers and her organization are very grateful for the donation to the strike fund, but it just isn't enough considering the Outpost makes ethical decisions about products all the time.

"If we care about tuna and dolphins, we should care about the rights of low-wage immigrant workers," she says.

Voces has been working with Palermo's workers since 2008, at which time the workers started a petition to receive higher pay and shorter work hours. According to Neumann-Ortiz, little progress was made and therefore, on June 1, about 150 Palermo's workers went on strike.

"This wasn't a decision made overnight. This had been a long time coming," she says.

She says over 90 have been terminated and about 60 returned to work. The issue is at a stand-still until the National Labor Relations Board reaches a decision in the dispute over the terminations.

"This is a manufactured controversy on the part of Voces de la Frontera to try to subvert immigration law," Chris Dresselhuys, director of marketing for Palermo's, reported to The Huffington Post.

Palermo's claims the workers were fired due to under-documentation, but Voces says they were illegally fired for attempting to start a union.

"This issue is extremely complex and each party represented has a very different version of what has happened and what should happen to bring the issue to some form of conclusion," says Mehnert.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.