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Chicago Unions Look to Strengthen Ties After Immigration Clash

Leaders of Chicago’s worker centers and unions have been meeting to soothe conflicts over the defense of unionized immigrant workers.


Tensions developed this summer after union members approached a worker center for help with no-match letters from the Social Security Administration. The letters tell employers which employees’ social security numbers don’t match their name and are often used as an excuse to fire immigrant workers.

“Union members were coming to worker centers either because the unions weren’t doing something, or they didn’t know they had a union,” said Eddie Acosta, the coordinator of the AFL-CIO worker center program. “Then worker centers would come to the unions and say, ‘look, we got your members here.’ It would raise the hackles of the unions.”

WHERE’S THE UNION?

When members of the Sheet Metal Workers union employed at Wheatland Tube Company feared for their jobs after the company received no-match letters, they turned to the Chicago Workers Collaborative. The organization defends immigrant workers, and has held call-ins on a popular Spanish-language radio station for immigrants to discuss problems at work.

Workers told Tim Bell, executive director of the CWC, that the union was advising members to resolve Social Security problems on their own.

The CWC contacted the union and introduced its activist menu—active grievance filing, public pressure campaigns, and seminars that counsel workers on their rights when pressured by management. The conversation didn’t go well.

“The union thought, ‘who are these people? Are they scamming us?’” Acosta said. (The union did not return calls.)

Not all unions know how to handle immigration threats, while others have been woefully neglectful of their immigrant members. Worker centers, on the other hand, must delicately balance their agitation with respect for union prerogatives.

“Workers’ rights have to be fought for through the union,” said Bell, adding, “If the union doesn’t do anything, we have to escalate pressure on them.”

Bell said that because his organization didn’t have a relationship with the union, it needed a go-between. The tension lifted when unions in the Chicago Federation of Labor contacted the Sheet Metal Workers.

“It got the union to push back on the company,” said Acosta. “The worker center learned that the union was slow to respond because they didn’t know what to do, not because they didn’t care.”

SHARING RESOURCES

The relationship between unions and worker centers can be powerful. Where labor law ties the hands of the union, worker centers can act.

“While a union can’t do a secondary boycott, they can say to the company, ‘there are all these community groups out there not beholden to these laws and they’re going to be all over you if you fire these workers,’” Bell said.

Since the summer conflict, monthly meetings have brought unions together with seven Chicago worker centers. Dozens of union officers and organizers have been trained to fight no-match letters and have learned the mechanics—and flaws—of the federal “E-Verify” system employers use to check immigration status.

The Chicago meetings are a step toward the AFL-CIO’s goal to strengthen ties between unions and worker centers. Two years ago, the federation offered worker centers membership in local and state AFL-CIO federations, an invitation traditionally reserved for affiliate unions. About 60 day labor organizations and worker centers were invited, and several have signed up.

Jorge Ramirez, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor and a participant in the monthly meetings, said the gatherings have developed protocols for worker centers to handle union members who walk through the door.

The training program has yielded real-world results.

According to Bell, unionized workers from a grocery store chain recently contacted CWC, concerned about no-match letters. This time a plan was in place, and worker center activists are coordinating a response with the union.

Acosta expects more collaboration like the recent conversation between the Roofers union and worker center representatives. The union wanted to learn from experienced immigrant-worker organizers, while worker centers challenged union reps to support workers who lose their jobs during union campaigns. Organizers discussed an apprenticeship program to help bring immigrant workers into the unions.

The worker centers are also using face time with unions to swap data, building a city-wide database of companies that owe back pay or violate wage agreements. That way, Bell said, everyone has a clearer picture of where worker abuse is happening.

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