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Immigrant workers in a Chicago factory:
Victory on the picket line

August 17, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

LEE SUSTAR and ORLANDO SEPULDEVA report on a victorious strike by immigrant workers in Chicago who walked out over threats to terminate them based on immigration status--and the implications of this struggle for the labor and immigrant rights movement.

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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accept the agency's offer to send more than 100 back into the plant without penalty--and with the threat of termination withdrawn.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.

What you can do

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.


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 production.

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."

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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 cut.

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.

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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 traffic.

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 Collaborative.

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.

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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.

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