On Strike Without a Union

Cygnus employees prove they are a ‘pea that weighs a pound’

Kari Lydersen

Cygnus workers clean up a soap spill. Striking workers say accidents increased after 118 of them walked out.

When a human resource manager told immigrant workers at the Cygnus soap and detergent factory on Chicago’s far south side on July 25 that they had to prove their legal status within 15 days or be fired, they took matters into their own hands. The next day, 118 workers walked out and formed a picket line, going on strike even though no union represented them.

What followed is a scenario that is likely to become increasingly common as the country forges ahead with a new immigration enforcement mandate without comprehensive immigration reform.

Cygnus employee Francisco Reyes says he was told that if he and other workers couldn’t prove that they were in the country legally by Aug. 10, they would be fired because in 2005 the Social Security Administration sent Cygnus a no-match” letter saying that social security numbers being used by their workers didn’t jibe with agency records. Further, says Reyes, the fired workers were expected to train replacements that were being brought in. Cygnus managers did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

We had no choice but to go on strike,” says Reyes in Spanish. A 39-year-old father of two, he has lived in this country 18 years. 

No-match letters originated as an administrative tool to correct Social Security records, but have since been used as a red flag that a worker is undocumented. (See No Match, No Mas,” September). Although the letters explicitly state that they should not be used as a basis for firing, employers have frequently used the letters as an excuse – albeit an illegal one – to get rid of workers who are organizing or making waves. 

After Congress failed to pass an immigration reform bill this summer, on Aug. 10 Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a government plan to increase workplace enforcement based on no-match letters. Increasing numbers of no-match letters will be sent out and employers must resolve the issue or fire the worker in question within 90 days or risk a heavy fine. 

The new rule ignores the fact that the Social Security Administration database is estimated by the Office of the Inspector General to be only about 60 percent correct, with numerous errors related to married names and multiple names traditionally used by Latinos. Many Latinos with citizenship or permanent residency are likely to get no-match letters and possibly be fired under the new plan. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez described the plan as a way to highlight the need for broader immigration reform; but until that happens, workers and employers will be caught between a rock and a hard place.

The likely result is that employers will continue to skirt the law, and further exploit immigrant workers in the process. Arnaldo Garcia, human rights project director for the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, notes that many employers faced with no-match letters – including a microbrewery he recently dealt with – simply fire their workers then rehire them under new names and social security numbers for less pay.

They’ll say You’re my buddy, I’m going to fire and rehire you.’” Garcia says. So the process starts all over again. They’ll rehire them in different ways, or subcontract them, or just exploit them by paying them under the table without benefits.”

In fact, 110 out of the 118 striking Cygnus workers were subcontracted employees hired through a temporary staffing agency, Total Staffing Solutions, even though most had worked there for two to nine years. Along with demanding their jobs back, the striking workers asked for higher wages – most made just $6.50 an hour – and that the company hire them all as permanent employees.

Without the help of a union or strike fund, the workers manned a picket line daily, foregoing badly-needed wages and braving the hottest days of summer. They got some support from unions – the International Association of Machinists District 8 expressed interest in organizing them, the UFCW Local 881 donated $500 and Teamsters truck drivers refused to cross the picket line.

The strike made an impact. Yesterday, seven trailers left empty,” says striking worker Evo, a 25-year-old from Mexico City, in Spanish, as he peered through a chain link fence at Cygnus workers hosing away sudsy residue from a spill on Aug. 9. The new workers cause a lot of accidents. Now they have three or four stevedores in one line where there used to be one, because they can’t work as fast as we did. The line is very hard – whites and blacks will leave after the first shift.”

Evo and other workers reported working 10 to 12 hour days with abrasive chemicals, no safety equipment and poor ventilation. Evo lifted his soccer jersey to show off scars from chemical burns on his arms and chest. He said he coughs constantly from inhaling dust from the ingredients in powdered soap.

After two weeks on the picket line, the workers won a ground-breaking victory. A negotiator summoned by Cygnus’ parent company, New York-based Marietta Corp., flew out to meet with workers and Cygnus managers. The company first offered to hire back the eight permanent Cygnus employees, but the permanent workers had agreed it was all or none. So after about four hours, the company consented to hire everyone back at their previous wages.

This was 100 immigrant workers with no union beating a Fortune 500 company,” says immigrant rights organizer Jorge Mujica.

I’m realizing there must be many other companies in this situation,” says worker Salvador Peres, 22, in Spanish, hanging out on the steps next to the company as the negotiations stretched on. If we have a victory here, it could help others in the same situation.”

Mujica describes the significance of the Cygnus victory with a Spanish expression about a garbanzo de libra” – a pea that weighs a pound. He says this situation and others like it should be an impetus for unions to do a better job of organizing immigrants, and for union contracts to include language on how companies will deal with no-match letters. More importantly, it sends a message to employers that they fire workers based on no-match letters at their own risk.

This should be a lesson for other companies not to screw up like this,” Mujica says. They give you a no-match letter, you go on strike. If you fire an undocumented worker you have to replace him with another undocumented worker, because no one else will work for these wages.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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