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June 16th, 2008

For immediate release

Dave Moore, Voces de la Frontera (Wisconsin), 414-218-7115
Brian Payne, Workers' Interfaith Network (Minnesota), 612-859-5750

Ashley Furniture's prosecution by the National Labor Relations Board Tuesday June 17th is no routine matter. It marks the latest chapter in a conflict over Social Security 'No Match' letters which typifies the fear and confusion sparked by proposed rules from the Bush Administration that are affecting employers and employees alike.

The NLRB complaint against the country's largest furniture retailer alleges that Ashley interfered with the rights of workers at its Arcadia, Wisconsin plant, instructing them that they could not speak to each other about procedures the company implemented on "No Match" letters and work authorizations. [No Match briefing]

"As soon as details of proposed new federal rules emerged, Ashley's attorneys panicked and rushed to implement those procedures prematurely – procedures which the federal courts blocked after hearing evidence from labor and civil rights groups showing that they were deeply flawed," explains Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera, the Milwaukee workers' rights center that took forward the employees' complaint. "By threatening firings and banning communication between workers, the company created a climate of fear."

The company threatened to fire workers on the basis of a routine letter issued by the Social Security Administration in cases where a worker's Social Security contributions cannot be correctly allocated because of a records mismatch. With an acknowledged 17.8 million errors in the SSA database, the issue is often a simple typographical error or name change on marriage or divorce. Most of those affected are U.S. citizens.

However, Ashley took its lead from new proposals from the Bush Administration seeking to force employers to treat receipt of a 'No Match' letter as demanding re-verification of work authorization. The proposed rule would require the company to dismiss after 90 days where a worker could not resolve a problem, backed by the threat of massive fines for non compliance.

Most employers have consistently opposed the plan, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated would cost companies $1 billion to implement. However, some, like Ashley, have rushed ahead. They do so despite the fact that No Match letters clearly state that they have nothing to do with work authorization and that no adverse action should be taken against workers whose names appear in them. In doing so, they risk violating existing state and federal anti discrimination laws.

"We have seen a number of examples of 'No Match' letters being abused in Minnesota," says Brian Payne of the Minnesota Workers Interfaith Network, a workers' rights organization based in the Twin Cities. "Just last September, Best Brands Bakery in Eagan, Minnesota improvised its own form of 'No Match' verification to lay off 60-80 workers with decent wages and benefits and replace them with workers from temporary agencies at a fraction of the wage with no benefits. This is having a devastating impact on our communities as employers throughout Minnesota and the country continue to unjustly lay off employees using 'No Match' letters as an excuse."

According to Neumann-Ortiz: "All we are asking companies to do is to follow the law. Companies have been acting as though the proposed rule is law. It is not. It was blocked by a federal court. There is absolutely no legal basis or authority requiring employers to re-verify workers status based solely on a no-match letter. Yet, we are seeing employers overstep their bounds not just in response to federal letters, but at the state level, too, with similar 'No Match' letters issued by the State of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Unemployment Division."

For Attorney Mark Sweet, representing Voces de la Frontera on behalf of the workers, the attempt to silence the employees is of particular concern. "The right of workers to discuss workplace issues among themselves is an essential element of workplace democracy that lies at the core of the National Labor Relations Act. Overly broad rules prohibiting such discussions, such as that implemented by Ashley, interfere with the workers' federally protected rights," Sweet says.

An Administrative Law Judge will hold a hearing on the allegations of violations by Ashley on Tuesday, June 17, 2008, 9:00 a.m., at Trempleau Court in Whitehall, Wisconsin. Voces de la Frontera and its attorney will be present to assist the General Counsel of the NLRB prosecute the case on behalf of the workers.

Voces de la Frontera – www.vdlf.org - is a nonprofit with offices in Milwaukee and Racine. It is a leading voice in the national immigrant rights movement and its current activities include a major campaign to increase civic participation.

The Workers Interfaith Network – www.workersinterfaith.org – is a Twin Cities (Minnesota) based organization that unites religious leaders, labor leaders, and workers to address economic disparities by demanding improved wages, benefits, and working conditions assuring that our community's economic abundance is shared by all.



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