CHICAGO-Management at the Marietta Corp./Cygnus soap factory told workers that if they couldn’t resolve their immigration status by August 10, they’d be fired. The 118 workers at the plant decided that they had had enough and went on strike July 30-even though they had no union representation, and almost all of them were temporary workers.
Eighteen-year-old striker Monica, who’d been working at Cygnus for five months, summed up the mood. “I think it’s terrible that there’s racism against Mexican people here,” she said. “They just want to work. I mean people have families and they can’t feed them if they can’t work. We were told we were getting kicked out because we had no papers, so we decided to go on strike. We’re getting together and we’re putting pressure on them to listen to us.”
The strike soon won the support of International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 8 after union representatives visited the picket line on the second day of the strike. Two days later, an overwhelming majority of the strikers had signed petitions to make District 8 its bargaining agent, and union organizers promised to demand that management immediately recognize the union. If the employers refuse, the IAM plans to file for an election.
The workers realize that even with the support of District 8, the struggle will be difficult. But they’re determined. “We are on strike because we see so many injustices,” said one striker, Maria. “We have been working for a long time. Then they left us without our jobs and we really need them back. They forced us out on strike.”
Besides management’s use of workers’ immigration status threaten termination, the strikers’ top grievance is low pay. The starting wage was $6.50 per hour until the recent increase in the state minimum wage to $7.50. The top pay rate is $8.50 for bottling and packaging soaps and detergents for private-label store brands marketed by Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart and other big retailers. Workers who’ve been at the plant between eight and 11 years make just above minimum wage-with no benefits.
Out of the 118 workers-virtually all of them Mexican immigrants-only 8 are considered full-time permanent Cygnus employees. The rest have been employed through the big Total Staffing Solutions temporary worker agency. However, as Chicago Workers’ Collaborative organizer Martin Unzueta points out, the workers aren’t really temps, “because they have worked here for six years. Cygnus just doesn’t want to pay them what they deserve.”
The company can certainly afford to pay more. While the workers refer to the plant by the name of its former owners, Cygnus, that company has been absorbed by a series of mergers. In 2005, Cygnus’ parent company, Packaging Advantage Corp, was acquired by Marietta Corp. Marietta, in turn, is controlled by Ares Management, a $16 billion international private equity firm that owns the Samsonite luggage company, the Maidenform lingerie brand, the Serta mattress manufacturer and the House of Blues nightclub chain.
The decision by the workers to strike, despite having no union, reveals just how tightly the struggles for legalization for the undocumented and for labor rights are intertwined. And, it also exposes the cynical measures corporations will use to keep wages down and marginalize immigrant workers.
In July, a group of Cygnus workers, with the support of the vast majority of permanent and temporary co- workers, approached management about a wage increase. Management’s response was to tell workers that they had to resolve mismatched Social Security numbers by August 10. If they couldn’t, they’d be fired.
The issue of Social Security status at Cygnus first appeared more than a year earlier. The company claimed it received “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration indicating a discrepancy between their employees Social Security records and what the administration has on record. Unzueta of the Chicago Workers Collaborative contacted Cygnus management and explained to the company that it wasn’t legally required to take any action against the workers. The issue disappeared.
It wasn’t until workers had voiced their demands for a wage increase that management again targeted their immigration status. This is a tactic employers increasingly use to abuse vulnerable immigrant workers across the country, whether they have a union or not. But at Cygnus, management was stunned when workers fought back.
With workers picketing the plant entrance, chanting, “We are Cygnus, We want to work” and carrying homemade signs saying “Workers rights equal human rights” and “fair ages for our work,” the company suddenly announced they would work with a new temporary staffing agency, Staffmark. All of replacement workers Staffmark has hired at the plant are African American-and they weren’t told that they’d be used as strikebreakers.
This highlights another cynical example of corporate policy in the
“We want our jobs back. We want permanent jobs. We want to be paid the same as the new [scab] workers,” said Edith, a Cygnus striker.
The fact that these workers had to confidence to say “enough is enough” should inspire all those who want to see a revival of working class militancy. Just as inspiring has been the number of African-American workers who have stopped across the street in their cars, looked at the picket line and the signs, listened to the chants, taken leaflets from picketers–and then drove away.
Jorge Mujica, a leading organizer of
“What’s important is that labor unions have to realize that this is happening and they have to find a way to come close to these workers. They have to approach groups of workers and set aside the idea that you can only organize workers in targeted shops. This can arise at any point, anywhere, in any city. So they have to come up with something creative to recruit, get members, to organize these workers. I mean, what better member can you get than a worker who, without a labor union, goes out on strike?”
Workers went a week on the picket line marching and chanting without any promise of strike benefits. They’ve been joined by family and supported by members of the March 10th Movement immigrant rights coalition, the Southeast Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights, the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, the International Socialist Organization and the Juan Diego Community Center.
In the absence of union organization, it’s been members of these groups who have raised funds, helped with making flyers, brought water, ice, snacks and other basic necessities to the picket line on a daily basis. Picketers have demonstrated their thanks to all who have turned up in solidarity.
Production has been impacted at the plant, but the company is digging in. The odds are stacked against this group of courageous workers. But if they win, it could encourage other workers, immigrant and native- born, to take a stand.
Victory is indeed possible. But that depends on keeping picket lines strong and winning the support of organized labor and pro-worker organizations with deeper resources. As one of the chants in the big immigrant rights’ marches put it, “immigrant rights are workers’ rights.” The struggle at Cygnus points the way to winning both.
What you can do:
1) Visit the picket line and bring others. The shifts begin at 7am and 4pm. Cygnus is located at
2) Hold a collection in your workplace or organization. Contact Martin Unzueta at 773-653-3664 if you have a donation. Publicize the struggle in whatever way you can.
3) Contact Cygnus Corp. at (773) 785-7100. Ask to speak to Jon White and tell him to treat Cygnus workers with respect and listen to their demands.