Ashley Furniture Wrong in Restricting Employees’ Speech Regarding “No-Match” Letters
MILWAUKEE (Oct. 2, 2008) — In an important ruling, Judge James Kennedy of the National Labor Relations Board has struck down a directive of Ashley Furniture Industries of Arcadia, Wisconsin, that workers not discuss among themselves or with outside groups the company’s procedures — including threats that workers would be fired — with respect to Social Security Administration “no-match” letters received by the company. The decision comes almost a year after the company backed away from the dismissals.
That a worker is listed in a no-match letter does not mean that the worker is unauthorized to be employed in the U.S.; nevertheless, the Bush administration is trying to use the letters as an immigration enforcement tool — a means of pressuring employers to reverify noncitizen employees’ employment eligibility. The administration’s strategy has been blocked by a federal district court, which expressed concern that it would negatively impact a large number of U.S. citizens.
“As soon as details of proposed new [no-match letter-related] federal rules emerged, Ashley’s attorneys panicked and rushed to implement those procedures prematurely — procedures which the federal court blocked after hearing evidence from labor and civil rights groups showing that they were deeply flawed,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Director of Voces de la Frontera, the Milwaukee workers’ rights center that took forward the Ashley employees’ complaint. “By threatening firings and banning communication between workers, the company created a climate of fear.”
Workers broke their silence and called for help only as threatened dismissal dates drew near. When they did, Voces de la Frontera and its attorney, Mark Sweet, made clear to Ashley that its policies were inconsistent with federal regulations concerning Social Security number documentation and verification. Ashley withdrew the threats in October 2007.
Sweet filed unfair labor practice charges against Ashley Furniture for restricting the rights of workers to discuss among themselves and with Voces de la Frontera issues that could affect their continued employment.
“Judge Kennedy’s ruling affirms the right of all workers to speak freely about their wages, hours and working conditions free from employer restrictions and interference,” said Sweet following the ruling. “This decision reinforces fundamental labor policy that has existed for over 70 years.”
Neumann-Ortiz sees the Ashley case is part of a larger picture. “This is not an isolated example of an employer not following the law. We have seen many employers using no-match letters to threaten workers when they have no basis to do so. Unless there is a change in the law, employers cannot simply demand that workers produce new documents or threaten termination.”
She emphasized that no-match letters frequently are “triggered” by simple typing and database errors. The letters “were created by the Social Security Administration to correct such problems, not as a tool to harass workers.”
Voces de la Frontera (www.vdlf.org) is a nonprofit organization with offices in Milwaukee and Racine, Wisconsin. It is a leading voice in the national immigrants’ rights movement, and its current activities include a major campaign to increase civic participation.