The evening of Thursday, June 21 started with a beer and Riverwest Co-op Café vegan tacos, music provided by Michael Bootzin. This was the celebration of People’s Books Cooperative’s (PBC) fifth anniversary, complete with candles and a vegan chocolate cake. It was also the public announcement of the move from their location on Locust east of Oakland to Center Street in Riverwest. Mike Gonzales, of PBC board did the talking. Gonzales called Riverwest the perfect location for their move. The neighborhood nurtures small business and supports the co-op movement. It seems there is no better place to celebrate than the Riverwest Public House a cooperative tavern dedicated to lending a hand to co-op ventures in the neighborhood. This event was part fundraiser and part political platform. (Learn more about People’s Books Cooperative at the end of this story) Not surprisingly, the event at the Public House featured an activist guest speaker, Christine Neuman-Ortiz, director of Voces de la Frontera. She spoke on behalf of the organized workers from Palermo’s who are working to form a union and have called a strike at the plant. The two may not be related, but Governor Walker’s comment to a billionaire supporter about “divide and conquer” seems to have come home to roost in our Menomonee Valley. It certainly seems to be the zeitgeist to attack unions in the public sphere and now, as Walker noted in his recorded conversation, the private sphere as well. Palermo’s has up until now had a good reputation for building a new pizza production plant and a restaurant on a site in the Menomonee Valley near Miller Park and employing many Milwaukee citizens. This story is complicated by the nationality of many of the workers at Palermo’s; this growing business employs a large number of Latino workers. Palermo’s workers claim that there are issues of health and safety at the plant; the owners claim there are not. Palermo’s workers were not represented by a union prior to this action, but are petitioning to form one. This has resulted in workers walking off the job on May 29. The workers called a strike after meeting on June 1. The number of workers on strike has been reported as 125 to 150 from different sources. The company seems focused on stopping the formation of a union. Company posters in the building attempt to dissuade employees from joining a union. According to Ortiz, conversations between employees and management used to be directly with the owners. Recently this changed and contact is only with the law firm Jackson Lewis, which Ortiz claims has a history of anti-union work. The firm represents management in labor management disputes and, according to the group American Rights at Work, has worked to stop union organizing activities. The website americanrightsatwork.org lists cases and opinions from Jackson Lewis on what they call union busting practices. Voces de la Frontera has a history of working on workers rights issues and providing immigrants with assistance to find work and not suffer discriminatory treatment because of their immigration status. Ortiz, executive director of Voces, went on to say that Palermo’s was not responding to workplace issues and when talk of a union began, Palermo’s started immigration verification actions for full time employees. This action, along with the ten-day deadline stipulated for workers to provide proof of right to work in the US, is central to the dispute. The action is unprecedented at Palermo’s, and Ortiz noted that it was interesting the requirements did not apply to temporary workers. Temp workers have fewer rights and usually do not receive any work related benefits. Additional temp workers have been hired to replace striking full-time workers. This appears to be a strategy designed for Palermo’s to avoid having a union while keeping production going without hassles from the US Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) against temp workers. Ortiz claims Palermo’s is using ICE legal action “as a hammer to fight the union.” Voces helped file a complaint with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) to stop the ICE action against workers at Palermo’s. One hand of government does not like another hand being used as a tool in labor disputes. Ortiz stated the NLRB request was joined by the Department of Homeland Security to direct Palermo’s to “suspend all verification” of workers while the labor dispute is ongoing. Despite this, Ortiz states that Palermo’s is beginning to fire workers who have not submitted documentation on worker eligibility within the company’s ten day time frame. Ortiz stated that temp workers who joined the strike were fired. She claims they were blacklisted from getting jobs in the area. Ortiz invited the crowd at the Public House to join a boycott of Palermo’s Pizza. I was given a flyer at the event from the “workers who make your pizza.” It has an interesting note in small print on the bottom: “We have no labor dispute at this location. We are appealing only to the public – to the consumers. We are not seeking to induce any person to cease work or refuse to make deliveries.” The workers are not trying to close Palermo’s Pizza operation down. They hope that a boycott of Palermo’s Pizza by consumers will change the dialogue with the company. The Riverwest Co-op was first in line to join the boycott and stop selling Palermo’s Pizza. (In the interest of full disclosure: I am on the board of the Riverwest Coop and my partner works there and was at the Workers Collective meeting where the decision was made to boycott Palermo’s Products. In the interest of further disclosure, I acknowledge that while pizza can’t really be considered a health food it certainly is a comfort food. I hope there is a solution to this so that we can get back to selling and eating that cheesy delight!) The crowd cheered the Coop for its stance. We shall see if it makes a difference. With citizenship duties completed, the crowd at the Public House lit candles and ate cake for People’s Books Cooperative while enjoying the music of River Water Tribe. A New Chapter for a Milwaukee Classic
People’s Books Cooperative Moves to Riverwest
by People’s Books Cooperative Volunteers
The story of People’s Books began in 1974 when Chris Chiu founded the store with a typewriter, a few book catalogs, and loans from his closest friends. Chris ran the store by himself for thirty-three years, occasionally moving, until finally settling in on Locust Street near UW-Milwaukee.
The store started with humble beginnings, but Chris tirelessly worked to build up a wide selection of books, and to nurture relationships with customers and progressive organizations. People’s gained a loyal following and a reputation not only as a bookstore but as a community resource. People’s thrived despite the challenges of operating in an economic environment dominated by corporate big box stores.
When Chris announced his plans to retire in 2007, many dedicated customers feared the loss of what had become a local institution. When these customers approached Chris with the idea of transforming People’s Books into a community-owned cooperative, he agreed to help. In early summer 2007 a core group was formed and People’s Books Cooperative (PBC) was born.
Over the last five years PBC has continued to develop, thanks to the hundreds of members and volunteers who have contributed their time and energy to formalizing the community that had sustained People’s Books for so many years. PBC has also continued the tradition of using the store as a community space, hosting a wide variety of events, including guest speakers, authors, open-mics, musicians, art workshops, poetry readings, etc.
Earlier this year the PBC board of directors decided to relocate the store to 804 E. Center St., in the Riverwest neighborhood. This decision came after months of research and discussion among PBC community members and was spurred on by several factors related to the challenges of operating in an undeniably harsh climate for independent bookstores. As well, the board had been unhappy with the Locust St. location, and the co-op’s five year lease at the Locust St. location was soon set to expire. Moving seemed like an opportunity to find a space that more fully met the needs of the bookstore and would better nurture the cooperative’s community mission.
While Riverwest was not the only place they looked, it seemed like the best fit. It is a diverse neighborhood that nurtures local businesses and has a special love for cooperatives. The board was intrigued when they heard about an open storefront on E. Center Street in the busy heart of Riverwest. They felt that relocating to the busiest commercial stretch of the neighborhood could bring many new potential volunteers and members into the store.
One additional factor made moving to Center Street a very appealing option. The building owners, Peg Karpfinger and Patrick Moore, are deeply committed and personally invested in the success of the Riverwest neighborhood. The board met with them and were impressed that they were believers in cooperative businesses and were willing to make significant contributions to help PBC thrive.
Finally, in mid-June, the moving began. Thanks to the hard work of People’s volunteers, and aided by new supporters in the Riverwest neighborhood, most of the shelves and books were moved in only one day! Look for the new storefront, located at 804 E. Center St. They plan to open by July 1.
Don’t be confused when the old storefront makes a brief comeback during the fall. PBC will temporarily use the old Locust Street location for Fall 2012 textbook sales. All future textbook sales, however, will be at the new Center Street location.