written by: Sadie Curtin, ISN Intern
On Tuesday September 18, the Marquette University student newspaper, The Marquette Tribune, published an article about many employees of a local pizza shop, Palermo’s Pizza, going on strike due to unfair labor practices. The YES – Youth Empowered in the Struggle group on campus has had a significant impact in encouraging the boycott and supporting the former workers. Youth Empowered in the Struggle is a student-led, multicultural organization that fights for justice for immigrants, students, and workers. YES is the youth branch of Voces de la Frontera, Wisconsin’s largest immigrant rights organization.
The President of the Marquette YES chapter, Sean Orr, a junior in the college of arts and sciences, has played a major role in advocating the labor issues on campus and within the local community. The following is an interview that was conducted with Sean Orr:
Q: How prominent is Palermo’s on campus?
A: Palermo’s is the only pizza sold in the residence hall stores, which are in each of Marquette’s nine halls and are open until 1 AM. Palermo’s is also sold at many Marquette sporting events, particularly its basketball games at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Q: How have you been advocating and raising awareness on campus thus far? What does the current situation look like now?
A: Currently, we are working on raising campus consciousness of the issue; most students are not from the Milwaukee area and are not aware of the struggles of the Palermo’s workers this past summer.
We have been raising consciousness via a number of methods: circulating a letter for faculty members to sign in support of the boycott, which has produced good results so far; and a student pledge that they would not buy Palermo’s until the strike and the boycott is over, out of respect for the striking workers and their families.
Student and faculty awareness of the issue is not yet at the level that we need in order to attempt to pull Palermo’s from our campus. Therefore, we plan on going into every dorm in the coming weeks to directly encourage those students who have the option to purchase Palermo’s to respect the boycott. We are very excited to get underway because it will expand our campaign to hundreds of new students and hopefully encourage some to respect the boycott.
Q: What is the relationship between Voces de la Frontera and Youth Empowered in the Struggle? Have you worked together prior to this boycott?
A: YES is not solely a student organization at Marquette. YES-MU is simply Marquette’s chapter of YES, which is actually the youth group of Voces de la Frontera.
YES has chapters at 13 high schools and universities in southeastern Wisconsin, and actually just started up its first middle school chapter here in Milwaukee! That is the marvelous thing about YES – it brings hundreds of students of all different ages and backgrounds into a community that strives towards justice for immigrants, students, and workers.
YES has been at the forefront of many of Voces’ campaigns, whether it was the fight for in-state tuition for undocumented students in Wisconsin (which we won in 2009, but was unfairly cut during Walker’s budget cuts in 2011) or educating the community about the benefits of DACA (YES volunteers and educators have reached thousands of DREAMers in Wisconsin over this issue).
Q: Are you receiving support from students in other student groups outside of YES?
A: We have reached out to several of the social justice groups on campus, but have particularly received support from JUSTICE (Jesuit University Students Together In Concerned Empowerment) and the College Democrats. As our campaign grows and our work becomes more well-known on campus, we hope to have several more student groups join in our struggle.
Q: How are the faculty responding? Do you think more will jump on board soon?
The faculty response – from those we have reached – has been great. One of the great things about Marquette is its faculty members who truly have a passion for social justice. Faculty truly are doing honor to our university’s mission to struggle for a more just society, and we are thankful for each and every one of them. When YES first got started up on campus, some of our most enthusiastic and vocal supporters were these very faculty members, and that continues to be the case as we build a movement on campus to support the boycott.
Q: Have you been able to build relationships with the former workers that are currently on strike?
YES as a whole has established a good relationship with Palermo Workers Union – the union formed by the striking workers – and many of our individual members have actually forged relationships with some of these striking members; some of the workers are just a few years out of high school. A handful of the strikers have even joined YES (our cut-off age for membership being 25)!
Q: How are people on and off campus in the community responding to your advocacy work?
A: Off campus the support for the strike and the boycott has been phenomenal. Here in Milwaukee, people of all different backgrounds and beliefs have rallied behind these workers and their struggle. Wherever you go in the city, you are likely to bump into someone who’s in support of the strike. That is not to say that our efforts are without opposition; the simple fact that only one grocery store has agreed to fully pull Palermo’s off the shelves is evidence of that. But our efforts are not for nothing, and the movement continues to build in strength.
On campus the response to our work has yet to really be seen, but we expect a good response once our efforts get underway. On this issue, it doesn’t matter if you disagree with our struggle politically or economically, that is an argument for a different day. What we want our university (its students, staff, professors, and administration) to understand is that our campaign is simply a continuation of what Marquette’s mission calls each of us to do: “Marquette strives to develop men and women who will dedicate their lives to the service of others, actively entering into the struggle for a more just society. We expect all members of the Marquette community, whatever their faith traditions, to give concrete expression to their beliefs by giving of themselves in service to those in need.”
The strikers and their families are in need. The Milwaukee immigrant community, suffering daily from socio-economic oppression and the lingering threat of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is in need. The students of Milwaukee’s public school system, which is losing 800 of its 6,000 teachers this year to budget cuts, are in need. YES is calling upon all of fellow Marquette community members, as well as our Milwaukee community members, to respect the struggles of these strikers, and to give them the dignity they deserve by respecting the boycott until their demands for a union, living wages, and a safe work environment are met.
For more information on YES and the progress of the boycott check out their Facebook page at on.fb.me/Ra3SIF