A year ago, in the middle of the nation’s most bitterly fought union organizing drive, management at the Smithfield Foods pork slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, sent a letter to 300 workers. The company, Smithfield claimed, had been notified by the Social Security Administration that the workers’ numbers didn’t match the SSA database. Come up with new numbers that could pass the “no-match check,” the company ordered the workers, or they’d be fired within two weeks.
The Smithfield plant, the largest of its kind in the world, employs 5,000 people, about half of them immigrants. No one can say for sure how many lacked immigration papers, but as in most meatpacking plants, many undoubtedly did. Despite their status, during the previous year those workers walked out twice to join immigrants’ rights marches. They even shut down production lines over the high accident rate. The fear created by the no-match check was an easy way to cut that activism short.
For the past two decades employers have threatened, and often implemented, similar terminations in workplace after workplace. At the Woodfin Suites in Emeryville, California, the hotel threatened no-match firings after workers began demanding compliance with the city’s living-wage law. At the Cintas Laundry chain, plant managers fired hundreds of employees last year in no-match checks during UNITE HERE’s national organizing drive. The list goes on and on.
The Bush Administration says that vastly increased checks will become a fact of life in every US workplace. On August 10, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that SSA would send letters to 160,000 employers on September 4, listing all workers whose numbers don’t jibe. After a ninety-day grace period, the Administration will require employers to discharge those whose numbers are still in question. Those letters would list the names of millions of workers.
Implementation of the new regulation was halted on August 31, however, after unions filed suit against it. In response to a legal challenge by two Bay Area labor councils in Alameda and San Francisco Counties, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, the national AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center, US District Judge Maxine Chesney issued a temporary restraining order blocking it. The TRO stopped Social Security from sending letters on September 4.
The suit charges that the new Bush rule will threaten jobs of US citizens and legal residents because of errors in the government’s database, and therefore would violate workers’ rights and impose burdensome obligations on employers. According to the SSA Inspector General, 12.7 million of the 17.8 million discrepancies belong to US citizens. A series of hearings will now be held to determine whether the order should be made permanent.
The plaintiffs filed suit because of the staggering scope of Chertoff’s order. About 12 million people living in the United States have no legal immigration status. Most of them work. In order to get hired, they have to present a Social Security number to their employer. Some use invented numbers, while others borrow existing numbers that belong to someone else. This causes no harm to others–if anything, it subsidizes the Social Security fund, since undocumented workers can’t claim benefits, although they’re paying deductions like everyone else.