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CHICAGO — Food production workers at El Milagro, one of Chicago’s most popular tortilla companies, join with community allies for a Day of the Dead vigil Nov. 2, 2021, in honor of five coworkers who died after contracting Covid-19 on the job. With candles and sugar skulls outside the company’s flagship taqueria in the Little Village neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side, workers and supporters spoke about their ongoing standoff with management — and their demands for justice on the job.
“We’re here to remember our coworkers, friends and loved ones who have passed on from Covid-19,” Guillermo Romero said at the vigil. “We’ll never forget them. But we continue in this fight, for ourselves, for our dignity and to get respect.” Romero has worked at the company for 16 years.
The workers also celebrated a recent victory. In late October 2021, employees filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor alleging violations of a state law prohibiting seven-day workweeks. In response, El Milagro management announced Oct. 27, 2021 that workers would have Sundays off. The win was modest, but important.
A month prior, on Sept. 23, 2021, El Milagro workers staged a temporary walkout after management repeatedly refused requests to discuss their concerns. About 100 employees picketed outside the Little Village taqueria that day, carrying a giant cardboard burrito and tortilla chips. Their chants changed the company’s name from El Milagro (“miracle”) to El Maltrato, “mistreatment.”
With 85 employees contracting Covid-19 and many resigning during the pandemic, the company has been understaffed, leading to a scarcity of El Milagro products at grocery stores across the Chicago area.
“You’ve heard there’s a shortage of workers over and over on the news, but the fact is there isn’t a so-called shortage of workers — it’s a shortage of good wages, good benefits, good working conditions and being treated with respect and dignity on the job,” says Laura Garza, director of Arise Chicago Worker Center, which has been helping the nonunionized El Milagro workers organize over the past several months.
The workers allege that, in order to keep up production, management was illegally forcing employees to work up to seven days per week and speeding up the production machines to dangerous levels.
“With the extreme speed of the machines, people are having health issues, especially back pain from having to go so fast,” El Milagro worker Alfredo Martinez tells In These Times. Martinez adds that he and his coworkers have also suffered health problems from having to work quickly in temperatures over 90 degrees without water breaks.
“They’re cranking up these machines to produce more tortillas, but we’re not machines,” says Martin Salas, an El Milagro employee who has worked at the company for 10 years. “I’m packing 80 packages in one minute… If it doesn’t happen, then it’s my fault.”
The workers also claim that management has advertised new job openings at $16 wages — more than what workers who have been at the company for years earn. Martinez, who has worked at El Milagro for 13 years, says senior employees like himself are also expected to train the new hires without any extra compensation.
The workers reported numerous other abuses at El Milagro, including sexual harassment and intimidation. With the help of Arise Chicago, they organized a committee and are demanding management implement a fair wage scale based on seniority and experience, increase wages to at least $20 per hour, stop all harassment and hire more staff.
At the Sept. 23, 2021 walkout and rally, when second-shift employees attempted to return to work and complete their shift — as they had informed management they would do—they were locked out. When first-shift workers arrived the next morning, they were greeted by an armed security guard.
The locked-out workers reported to work the next morning joined by 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez (whose district borders the El Milagro plant), Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Chicago Teachers Union Recording Secretary Christel Williams-Hayes. Feeling the pressure, management allowed the workers to return at the start of their 2 p.m. shift, with no loss of pay.
Since the walkout, the workers have filed multiple charges of unfair labor practices against El Milagro for illegal intimidation. They have also filed complaints with the Chicago Office of Labor Standards for violations of the city’s new paid sick leave and fair scheduling ordinances. El Milagro is now under investigation by both the Office of Labor Standards and the National Labor Relations Board.
As employee Alfredo Benedetti puts it, “After all the intimidation that El Milagro has waged against us protesting workers, many of us remain firm and convinced that we can win better treatment from [the human resources department] and owners, with a fair and dignified wage and better conditions at our workplace.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.