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Learning the lessons of the Cygnus strike

September 14, 2007 | Page 15

LEE SUSTAR explains that immigrant workers were ready, willing and able to organize themselves.

COULD A strike victory by 100 immigrant workers--who walked out without a union--hold lessons on how to revive the whole of organized labor?

The two-week strike that ended August 10 at Cygnus Corp. was sparked by the company's plan to terminate workers who couldn't re-verify their immigration status to resolve "no-match" letters from Social Security. Rather than surrender, the workers--all but eight of them temporary employees--carried out a well-organized strike that forced the soap manufacturer to drop its demands and rehire everyone.

During the strike, an overwhelming majority of workers signed a petition to be represented by International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 8. In its filing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the IAM named both Cygnus and its temp agency, Total Staffing, as employers.

This requirement to deal with two bosses is the kind of difficulty that's led many union organizers to walk away from workplaces where immigrant workers predominate. With limited budgets and staff time, union organizers (or their supervisors) weigh the resources needed to organize a small factory and the costs of negotiating and servicing contracts against the amount of dues that is likely to flow into the union treasury.

As a result, many unions turn down organizing opportunities in smaller shops, anticipating drawn-out and expensive organizing campaigns that, at best, will lose half the time when time comes for union elections--a vote that is often delayed by the employers' foot-dragging and the NLRB bureaucracy.

These difficulties have led some unions to concentrate their organizing resources almost exclusively on large employers, combining union drives with corporate campaigns. An example of this is the UNITE HERE organizing drive at Cintas, an industrial uniform and laundry company that's also a large employer of immigrant labor.

While there have been scattered successes in organizing contracts at individual worksites, the campaign has faded from view, as Cintas uses its money and muscle to frustrate organizers, and the union deploys resources elsewhere, such as organizing hotels.

The Cygnus strike, though, showed another possibility: that workers are ready, willing and able to organize themselves and take resolute action in order to do so. The union petitions were signed literally overnight. The question was whether a union would throw its resources into the struggle.

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IT COULD be argued that Cygnus is a fluke. However, all the elements that combined in a victory at Cygnus exist in cities where the immigrant rights movement had connections to the labor movement.

The Cygnus workers' first organized action was to negotiate the day off for the mass May Day march of 2006--the same was done at countless of union and nonunion workplaces around the U.S. This could not have been accomplished unless undocumented workers were willing to risk losing their jobs--or worse--in order to participate.

Also, local immigrant rights activists were ready to respond to the workers' needs with both technical and political advice--such as how to deal with no-match letters--as well as to organize solidarity among organized labor and beyond. Similar networks can be found in cities with large immigrant rights groups and sizeable labor movements, such as New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Seattle.

Plus, the workers' activism shows that union organizing need not be the kind of long slog and bureaucratic nightmare that most union drives become, owing to employer resistance. In fact, Cygnus workers showed what could be accomplished when workers seize the initiative and strike.

All too often, it is employers who provoke strikes, preparing for months with strikebreakers, security guards and union-busting lawyers. At Cygnus, for once, the shoe was on the other foot.

If unions had seized the opportunity during the May Day marches of 2006 to sign up immigrant workers during the protests or to hold informational meetings in immigrant neighborhoods, they could have connected with many of those who took the initiative to negotiate shutdowns for the protest and who want to be organized.

"The labor movement has a lot to learn from [the Cygnus] workers, because the labor movement can't be strong if it sets immigrant workers aside," Martín Unzueta, who served as an adviser to the strikers and is head of the Chicago Workers Collaborative that defends immigrant workers. "The immigrant workers are ready to be organized."

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