Setting Up No-Match Action Networks
When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in August a policy that gave employers a freer hand to punish workers with mismatched social security numbers, a committee of unions, workers’ centers, and immigrant rights groups in Chicago swung into action.
The Chicago Committee Against No Match has organized hundreds of activists throughout the Chicagoland region to respond immediately to the firing and harassment of workers whose names come up on no-match letters.
The Social Security Administration has issued about 100,000 of these no-match letters to employers in recent years, despite a finding from the agency’s inspector general last December that 12.7 million of the 17.8 million discrepancies in SSA’s database belonged to native-born workers. The new DHS rule is now on hold following a federal judge’s injunction.
Led by the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) workers’ center, advocates in Chicago are using the reprieve to ramp up their network.
The network’s goal is to put workers’ needs at the center of the immigration debate and raise the employer’s cost for abusing no-match letters, said Mark Meinster, a UE representative in Chicago.
“Since we launched the rapid-response network, we have saved 351 workers their jobs,” said Tim Bell, CWC’s executive director. “Those are 351 workers who would have probably gone from living-wage jobs to making less than minimum wage. This is a winning strategy that groups have to spread around the country.”
URGENT ACTION NETWORK
The network’s first move was to set up a hotline (1-888-DIGNIDAD) for workers to use when employers targeted them because of no-match letters. The hotline has fielded hundreds of calls since September and the network has stepped into 11 workplace disputes.
There are several responses deployed depending on the type of call, Meinster said. Legal residents are routed to the team of attorneys, which contacts the employer. The attorneys educate confused employers, explaining that no-match letters—because they’re not a reliable indication of legal status by themselves—should not be used as grounds for discipline or dismissal.
News about the hotline spread as the network distributed fliers at community events, worked English- and Spanish-language media, and convinced elected officials to refer cases to them. The network’s backbone comes from a dozen workshops, mostly within a 50-mile radius around Chicago, Bell said.
Drawing together religious leaders, immigrant rights activists, community group staffers, union members, attorneys, local politicians, and concerned residents, the trainings prepare activists to understand and quickly respond to no-match situations in their area. The goal for a full regional mobilization is to bring out 300-500 people on short notice for an action, Bell said.
When workers already fired because of a no-match letter call the hotline, the legal team looks for health and safety violations at their workplace, and reminds the employer that they could face a discrimination or labor-law violation lawsuit if they singled out particular workers.
If a no-match situation places a large group of employees at risk, organizers quickly reach into the community surrounding the workplace. Organizers call a meeting, and instruct workers about their rights. They distribute bilingual materials explaining legalities, such as the rule that prohibits employers from checking documents after three days from hiring.
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The workers map out an action plan with the network’s activists, delivering petitions to the owner and inviting religious leaders and media to visit plant managers.
The organizers also help workers educate their co-workers—including those who are native-born—so they can prepare a coordinated response.
The network reaches for confrontational tactics, like community rallies outside the plant, when an employer is unresponsive. In extreme cases, when all employees could be fired, organizers assist workers to prepare a strike and mobilize the full network.
The network moved quickly from theory to action. At Peacock Packaging, a food-container packaging company with four plants in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, management attempted to use no-match letters this fall to shed a majority of their permanent workforce—comprising several hundred employees—and replace them with temporary workers.
Pressure by the network’s legal team and internal organizing by the workers building up to a threatened walk-out convinced management to fold. The network also has uncovered cases where union locals unaware of the letters’ flaws have left their members undefended. Emanuel Castro, an employee of Utility Builders in Morris, Illinois, and a member of Laborers Local 25, turned to his union when he and fellow workers were threatened with dismissal because of no-match letters.
When union officials told him they were powerless, he contacted the hotline. Although Utility Builders workers were fired, Local 25 filed grievances after the network worked with the union to persuade them to fight cases of no-match among their members.
Creating the no-match network has required significant investments of time, money, and resources without the immediate promise of adding dues-paying members to union rolls. But for UE, the effort is seen as a down payment.
“We view this as a big-time organizing opportunity, because we think workers are going to be in motion on this issue [and] looking for assistance on fighting back,” Meinster said.
Their strategy looks to be paying off. No-match battles identify key worker leaders, who can move co-workers to sign union cards. Workers facing the threat of no-match firings at Food 4 Less, a local grocery store chain, have injected new life into a campaign by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881.
“The workers who are now helping UFCW organize at Food 4 Less are the same workers who in months past were the least likely to contact the union,” said Moises Zavala, a Local 881 organizer. “The no-match situation and the efforts of the union to fight no-match letters says much more to immigrant workers what a union is all about than any union brochure or flyer.”
No-match letters may become the new plant-closing bogeyman—a tool to strike fear into workers who question low pay and poor working conditions. For forward-looking unions, joining with community groups to fight no-match letters can show immigrant workers anxious to challenge their employer that they have a home in labor.
Jerry Mead-Lucero is the host/producer of Labor Express Radio in Chicago.