Immigrant Workers in Chicago Win Strike

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accept the agency’s offer to send more than 100 back into the plant without penalty—and with the threat of termination withdrawn.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 permanent workers.

For their part, the temps were told that the company was switching to a new agency, and workers would have to re-verify 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that ended in an offer: Would they come back to work for the old rates of pay, with all threats of termination withdrawn?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.”

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.

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.


Socialist Worker, August 17, 2007