[Marxism] How Immigrant Workers Won their strike against Cygnus
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
By LEE SUSTAR and ORLANDO SEPULDEVA
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penalty--and with the threat of termination withdrawn.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
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
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
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
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,
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,"
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
More information about the Marxism