[Marxism] How Immigrant Workers Won their strike against Cygnus

Greg McDonald sabocat59 at mac.com
Fri Aug 17 01:20:31 MDT 2007

August 15, 2007
How Immigrant Workers Won Their Strike Against Cygnus
Victory on the Picket Line


THE REMARKABLE struggle of immigrant strikers at South Chicago's  
Cygnus Corp., a nonunion soap factory, ended August 10 as improbably  
as it began two weeks earlier--with dozens of workers jammed into a  
temporary staffing agency's office, voting on the spot to accept the  
agency's offer to send more than 100 back into the plant without  
penalty--and with the threat of termination withdrawn.

The Mexican immigrant workers prevailed over a plant management  
backed up by its parent company, Marietta Corp., a large manufacturer  
of private-label soaps and detergents for huge retailers like Wal- 
Mart, Target and Walgreens. Marietta, in turn, is controlled by Ares  
Management, a private equity firm worth $16 billion.

Striking Cygnus therefore meant striking Corporate America, a  
struggle with impossibly long odds.

Nevertheless, there was no hesitation when workers decided to strike  
over management's plan to terminate anyone whose immigration status  
couldn't be verified by August 10.

Cygnus had used Social Security "no-match" letters--notification from  
the government that the Social Security numbers on file don't match  
those given by employees--to threaten the jobs of Cygnus' few  
permanent workers.


For their part, the temps were told that the company was switching to  
a new agency, and workers would have to reverify their status.  
Similar threats loom for immigrant workers across the U.S., as the  
government implements new rules in which no-match letters can be used  
as grounds for termination of employment, or worse.

Already, employers across the U.S. have begun using no-match letters  
as a pretext to fire workers. Cygnus management no doubt felt it  
could do the same, having long kept workers toiling for minimum wage  
or a bit more, and with no benefits.

Instead, the company faced a near-total strike, spirited picket lines  
and growing solidarity, including a promise of support from organized  
labor. A strikebreaking operation fizzled, and more and more trucks  
left the Cygnus plant without loads. The handful of people still  
working inside the plant passed word to strikers about plummeting  

So nearly two weeks after provoking the walkout, management invited  
permanent employees in for four hours of negotiations that ended in  
an offer: Would they come back to work for the old rates of pay, with  
all threats of termination withdrawn?

The workers didn't say yes. After all, they weren't in negotiations  
for themselves, but as the chosen representatives of all the  
strikers. They told Cygnus boss John White that they'd get back to  
him once they reported to the rest of the workers.

Manuel, a permanent employee, proposed a meeting in a nearby public  
park to discuss the deal. There, Edith, a permanent employee and  
strike leader, put it this way: "There are no permanent and temporary  
workers--we are all workers."

Martín Unzueta, the organizer of the Chicago Workers Collaborative  
and an adviser to the workers, proposed a solution: showing up the  
following morning at 7:30 a.m. at the temp agency, Total Staffing, to  
demand the same deal as the permanent employees had received. The  
workers would return to work together--or not at all.

It turned out that the temp agency, Total Staffing, had prepared a  
letter offering individuals the opportunity to return to work at  
Cygnus. But for the temp workers--who comprised 110 out of the 118  
workers in the plant, even though many had been on the job for years-- 
the deal wasn't quite done. It had to be voted on first.

As they made a unanimous show of hands in the office on Chicago's  
South Side, all a flustered Total Staffing manager could do was order  
reporters and solidarity activists to get out. The manager didn't  
dare ask the permanent Cygnus employees to leave, however. They  
remained to discuss the offer with the temps, vote on it, and,  
afterward, exchanged congratulations.

One striker, Julia, explained how unity among the Cygnus workers and  
solidarity from others led to victory. "We went on strike, you could  
say, with our eyes shut, but now we know that there are people who we  
can count on," she said. "Y que los demás no piensen que no se puede,  
porque si se puede--let no one think that it can't be done, because  
it can be done."

As Ignacio, a temp worker who'd been working in the plant for 11  
months, put it, "One of the lessons is that unity makes us strong.  
Even if we were simple employees, we made a big company tremble and  
move. This victory is for us workers, but also for all the working  
class and for all the community groups that were here supporting us."

* * *

IN FACT, community support for Cygnus workers first took shape more  
than a year before the strike, when they made contact with young  
immigrant rights activists in the South East Chicago Committee for  
Immigrant Rights (SECCIR).

One SECCIR activist, Olga Bautista, had worked in the accounting  
department at Cygnus in 2004. Two years later, she passed out  
leaflets in the parking lot to build support for the March 10, 2006,  
mass immigrant rights march that sparked a wave of similar  
mobilizations across the U.S.

One of Cygnus' permanent employees, Edith, took a flyer and asked for  
suggestions on how to deal with the no-match letters that the company  
had received a few months earlier. Bautista put her in touch with  
Unzueta of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, which focuses on  
immigrant workers' rights.

Unzueta contacted the company and informed them that the no-match  
letters were not intended to indicate immigration status, and  
required no action on their part. Management let the issue drop.

Cygnus workers, meanwhile, began organizing. Many attended the March  
10 protest, and almost all of them turned out for the follow-up  
protest on May Day 2006, as Edith negotiated with management to give  
workers the day off in exchange for a Saturday workday to make up for  
lost production. "We even had a bus pick them up at the plant to take  
them to the march," Bautista recalled.

Over the next few months, workers discussed problems in the plant-- 
not just low wages, but unsafe working conditions. According to one  
worker, management issues only gloves, but not masks or work boots,  
to workers who mix chemicals to manufacture detergents and soaps.

The unlabeled storage tanks outside the plant contain many toxic  
chemicals, which often spill out of vats and create noxious fumes and  
slippery floors. According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, six  
workers were taken to hospitals last December 18 after a hazardous  
material got on their skin.

Smaller-scale accidents are routine, a worker told reporters on the  
picket line. He pointed to chemical burns not only on his forearms,  
but his chest and stomach, where acid had burned through his street  
clothes. "They have the masks, but they don't give them out," he  
said. Another worker complained that only one person in management in  
the plant was authorized to call an ambulance in case of emergencies.

Another simmering grievance was racism and discrimination. Workers in  
the plant complain that Mexicans were treated badly by management and  
had to endure open racist abuse. One woman was demoted from a  
supervisory position because she couldn't speak English; her pay was  

So as this year's May Day protest approached, the mood at Cygnus was  
different. Workers were more confident, and they began asking for a  
raise. Management took a tougher line, saying no to any negotiated  
time off for workers to attend the march this year.

A few weeks later, Cygnus' new human resources manager, Mary Ann  
Vasquez, told permanent employees that they would have to clear up  
the no-match letters. At the same time, she informed temporary  
workers that they'd have to switch from Total Staffing to a different  
temp agency, Staffmark, and verify their immigration status in doing so.

Anyone who failed to comply would be terminated by the August 10  
deadline. The workers' response: an indefinite strike.

* * *

THE CYGNUS plant is an unlikely place to become a focal point of  
labor solidarity. Never unionized, it is located literally at the  
southern edge of the Chicago city limits, sandwiched between two  
highly active freight railroad lines that regularly back up local  

Semi-trucks loaded with freight and cartage haulers on their way to  
nearby landfills are often forced to wait 20 or 30 minutes for trains  
to pass. When they're finally able to roll, the drivers, well behind  
schedule, hit the accelerator hard, kicking up great clouds of dust  
as they rumble past the plant without a glance.

But on July 30, it all looked different. Surprised drivers looked  
down on an improvised picket line, with homemade signs and chants.  
Many waved and honked to show their support.

Each day after, the picket line was better organized--a schedule  
worked out, donated food and drinks distributed, a bullhorn to  
amplify chants. Activists from a number of organizations walked the  
line--including the Chicago Workers Collaborative, SECCIR, the Juan  
Diego Community Center, the International Socialist Organization and  
individual immigrant rights activists.

The owner of the house next door to the plant, himself a Mexican  
immigrant and factory worker, allowed workers taking a break from the  
sun-scorched picket line to sit on his shaded front steps, store  
their supplies and use his bathroom.

Strikers soon produced a leaflet explaining to drivers who were  
delivering to Cygnus that a strike was on, and asking them not to  
cross the picket line.

One nonunion driver, an African American, felt compelled to make his  
delivery. But he later came to walk the line and pledge his support,  
identifying the immigrant rights movement with the civil rights  
struggles of decades past. His presence had a visible impact on  
strikers, especially since Cygnus management had played the race card  
by hiring African Americans as strikebreakers.

In more than a few cases, however, Teamster drivers caught sight of  
the picket line, took a leaflet and drove on without making  
deliveries, to the cheers of strikers and their supporters.

And on August 1, the second workday of the strike, organized labor  
appeared on the picket line itself in the form of four business  
representatives from International Association of Machinists (IAM)  
District 8. The union had gotten a call about the strike from Ramón  
Becerra, an official of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who is also  
a leader in the Chicago chapter of the Labor Council for Latin  
American Advancement.

Becerra learned of the strike from Jorge Mújica, a journalist, labor  
organizer and leading figure in Chicago's March 10 Movement, the  
coalition central to the area's mass immigrant rights marches.  
Mújica, like Unzueta, had become an adviser to the strikers and moved  
to enlist union support.

The difficulty was that District 8 had no Spanish speakers on staff.  
But with Mújica interpreting, union business representative Karl  
Sarpolis made it clear that the union supported the workers. "We know  
how these companies discriminate against minorities," he said,  
leaving behind a petition to join the union. When he returned two  
days later, 90 workers had signed up.

In a picket-line meeting, the workers elected a provisional  
bargaining committee in case the union was successful in getting  
management to negotiate, and decided to hold a meeting with the union  
the following Saturday, August 4, at the Juan Diego center on the  
East Side.

Some 60 workers turned out to meet with IAM District 8's directing  
business representative Carl Gallman, along with Sarpolis and Armando  
Arreola, a business rep from IAM Local 701 and a native Spanish  
speaker who had been sent by his local president, Bill Davis, to  
provide additional support.

Gallman, a veteran of the IAM's glory days in the 1970s, recognized  
what was in front of him: a roomful of determined, militant strikers.  
The union was willing to try to organize the plant--permanent and  
temporary workers alike, he said. "We're going to help you, whether  
or not you join the union," he declared.

The union officials and the workers had independently come to the  
same conclusion: First, negotiate to get everyone back to work, and  
leave wages and conditions for later. After Gallman and the other IAM  
officials left, Mújica chaired the meeting, as workers discussed how  
to improve picket lines and organize support.

Even though these mostly minimum-wage workers had gone a week without  
wages, and of course had no strike benefits, no one complained. The  
highly focused discussion was all about how to take the struggle  
forward. Afterward, solidarity activists began to say out loud what  
they had barely begun to think: The strike could actually win.

The victory, as it turned out, was not the result of organized  
labor's support. The following Monday, the IAM's Gallman called  
Cygnus to speak to management and claim the right to represent the  
workers. While this certainly added to the pressure on management,  
his message wasn't returned, and matters went no further.

The Democratic presidential debates in Chicago, sponsored by the AFL- 
CIO, offered an additional chance to enlist labor support. AFL-CIO  
Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka took a copy of the fundraising  
letter, expressed sympathy and said the federation's organizing  
department should follow up. Linda Chavez-Thompson, the federation's  
executive vice-president, said the same. Local Chicago labor leaders  
also showed interest.

In the end, however, the workers won without much material support  
from unions, where the organizing machinery is often rusty and, even  
in the best cases, takes time to gear up.

A notable exception was United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)  
Local 881, which pledged $500. In hindsight, solidarity committee  
members realized they should have taken up a collection directly from  
the 17,000 union members who attended the AFL-CIO-sponsored debates.

But while labor was slow to move, the workers' own organization  
developed daily.

Two days after meeting with the IAM, several workers rallied  
alongside Dunkin Donunts workers fired after receiving no-match  
letters; that evening, 30 turned out to meet with labor lawyer Chris  
Williams, who provides legal resources to the Chicago Workers  

On August 8, workers' morale got a boost when the Chicago Tribune  
made their struggle the top story on its front page, adding to  
widespread coverage in the Spanish media. A delegation from the Juan  
Diego community center managed to get into the plant to demand  
negotiations with workers, succeeding where a previous attempt failed.

That same day, several workers joined dozens of supporters at a  
fundraiser organized by the Cygnus Workers Solidarity Committee,  
which had itself formed four days earlier. More than $1,300 was  
raised, including the UFCW donation--money that was quickly turned  
into bags of groceries for hard-pressed strikers' families.

Just as notable, though, was the character of the event itself, which  
linked immigrant rights and labor activists in an evening filled with  
music and interspersed with emotional speeches by strikers and  
supporters. Performers included Chuy Negrete, a well-known singer;  
the dance group Azteca Nahuil; and Iván Resendiz, a young classical  
guitarist. The event ran late as the crowd sang folk songs from the  
Mexican Revolution and the labor movement.

* * *

THAT SAME evening, the workers' chosen negotiators sat down for  
several hours with a representative from Cygnus' parent company,  
Marietta Corp.

Edith, the strike activist, said he presented himself as a neutral  
arbitrator prepared to settle the dispute. But Edith and the rest of  
the workers didn't buy it. They said they would negotiate only in the  
presence of their attorney, Chris Williams.

At a picket line meeting the following day, the workers reiterated  
their demands: Everyone would come back to work, or no one. No  
agreements would be made in the bargaining sessions. Workers would  
vote together on whether to accept any management offer.

"That's the Mexican tradition," explained Jorge Mújica. "A  
negotiating committee is not a signing committee. When there's a  
strike, workers declare themselves to be in permanent assembly,"  
voting on whether or not to accept management's offer.

Although none of the leading strike activists had any experience in  
unions in the U.S. or Mexico, workers were acting in that tradition.  
"Everyone has an uncle, a brother, a cousin who has done this,"  
Mújica said.

As the ensuing four-hour negotiations wore on, it became clear that  
management was ready to throw in the towel. Loading docks were  
vacant, trucks left the gates empty, and a huge spill of dishwashing  
soap washed out into the parking lot, a mess that would cost at least  
a couple of hours of production, according to the workers.

The scabbing operation had descended into farce, with high-school  
aged youths swarming around a beleaguered Cygnus manager trying to  
sort out assignments during the afternoon shift change. Pallets  
loaded with dish soap had been dropped at crazy angles just inside  
the plant entrance, well away from the loading dock.

Security guards, who days earlier had blustered about arresting  
strike supporters, wandered about listlessly, ignoring two reporters  
who roamed the employee parking lot.

Management capitulated, and Total Staffing fell into line. The only  
outstanding issue at press time was the status of a supervisor who  
had joined workers on the picket line.

Even so, workers had won a victory with far-reaching implications for  
both the immigrant rights movement and the unions. "The labor  
movement has a lot to learn from these workers, because the labor  
movement can't be strong if it sets immigrant workers aside," said  
Martín Unzueta, who has met dozens of workers in recent years who  
want to organize, but can't find a union to follow up. "The immigrant  
workers are ready to be organized."

Like Unzueta, Jorge Mújica thinks the Cygnus victory can inspire  
further advances. "People remembered how to fight," he said. "We're  
used to having street demonstrations in Mexico all the time. But when  
people get here, they live hidden, very silent lives.

"But this whole process, from March 10 last year to May Day this  
year, is about showing that you can fight. It was after May Day this  
year that they asked for a pay raise. This wouldn't have happened  
without the marches. If the workers hadn't participated once or  
twice, they wouldn't have gone on strike."

Edith, the strike leader who organized workers to participate in the  
marches, said the struggle for better wages and conditions would  
continue. "I'm happy because while we started with fear, now we  
realize that we can do lots of things if we're united," she said. "If  
[the issue of the temporary workers] didn't get resolved, we would  
have continued the strike, but with the help of everybody, because we  
have no union.

"The workers have to realize that they don't have to be afraid,  
because here we taught them that unity is the way forward."

Shaun Harkin contributed to this report.

Lee Sustar and Orlando Sepuldeva write for the Socialist Worker. They  
can be reached at: lsustar at ameritech.net

How You Can Help

Cygnus workers are still in need of financial support after surviving  
their walkout without strike benefits. Make out checks or money  
orders to the Chicago Workers' Collaborative (with "Cygnus workers"  
in the memo line), and send to: Cygnus Workers Solidarity Committee,  
c/o Chicago Workers Collaborative, P.O. Box 08048, Chicago, IL 60608.  
Call 773-653-3664 for

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