No Justice, No Italian Beef: Workers at Portillo’s Food Chain Walk Out on Strike
A group of non-unionized workers at the Chicago-based chain staged a week-long walk out, part of a growing wave of strikes in the area.
Alleging unfairly low pay and employer mistreatment, a group of non-unionized workers at Portillo’s — a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain serving hot dogs, Italian beef and Polish sausages — staged a seven-day strike last week.
“All we want is to be treated decently, to be treated fairly, to be paid fairly,” said striking worker Armando Huerta.
The strikers — all Latino — work at Portillo’s Food Service in suburban Addison, where the food served at the company’s nearly 50 Chicago area restaurants is prepared. They say that management has failed to replace their coworkers who left during the pandemic, instead expecting them to perform more labor while offering only a $0.35-per-hour raise.
“I was working before four days a week, and now I’m working six days a week,” explained Paty Córdova, another striker. “The company refuses to give us overtime. We are tired of the injustice of having us work double.”
Out of 25 employees at the Addison facility, 17 participated in the work stoppage, which lasted from June 28 to July 5. Most say they have been with Portillo’s for over a decade. According to Córdova, they have been trying to address workplace issues with management for the past four years.
“Thanks to the company for the good years, but enough is enough,” Huerta said last Friday at a rally outside Portillo’s flagship restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.
The strike was organized by the workers themselves with support from Arise Chicago, a 30-year-old worker center founded by diverse faith leaders. The employees, who don’t have a union, first reached out to Arise Chicago last November. They soon formed a workplace committee to collectively bring their concerns to management.
“We have tried to engage in talks with management at several levels — corporate, the plant manager, human resources — and none of them have responded to us,” Córdova said. “So we created this committee, this group, and we go by the motto: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”
On June 28, the committee attempted to deliver a set of demands around safe working conditions and higher wages to the company. Managers refused to meet with them and allegedly said, “if you don’t like it, go home.” The workers responded by hitting the picket lines.
“The Portillo’s leadership team is committed to hearing from each of our team members individually and will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement.
But Córdova said that this approach isn’t good enough: “They keep insisting on meeting with them one-on-one, individually, but we are not going to allow that because we don’t want to be intimidated at those individual meetings.”
Portillo’s management described the strikers as “a small group…[that] does not speak for our team members,” but was clearly shaken by the work stoppage. The company had to bring in temp workers to ensure food production continued, and allegedly resorted to intimidation by sending letters to some strikers threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. Arise Chicago says the latter is an Unfair Labor Practice and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The company eventually agreed not to discipline any of the strikers, and they returned to work together on the morning of July 6. Concerned that management might attempt to lock them out, the workers were accompanied back into the Addison facility by faith leaders from Arise Chicago.
“I have mixed emotions because we know the struggle isn’t over yet,” striker Jesus Victoria told In These Times. “But walking in after our strike, I felt capable and courageous demanding what is just.” Victoria and the other strikers report that they did not face any immediate discipline after going back to work, but they noted that the company held one-on-one meetings with each of them.
The non-unionized Portillo’s workers got the attention of Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, who tweeted about the strike last week, saying: “Workers are the Labor Movement, the power and purpose. They don’t have time for leadership to catch up. They are showing us the way. We have to run hard to help them form their unions that will mean lasting change and sustainable rights.”
Meanwhile, at least two other groups of Chicago-area workers were also on strike over the Fourth of July weekend.
At Dill Pickle Food Co-op — a member-owned grocery store in the Logan Square neighborhood — workers unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a two-day strike on Friday and Saturday.
The IWW says Dill Pickle management has been violating the collective bargaining agreement that’s been in place since last November, and is refusing to settle over allegations of unfair discipline, retaliation and unilateral of implementation of new policies brought to the NLRB.
I’Talia McCarthy, the co-op’s general manager, called the union’s allegations “unfounded” and said that eight cases with the NLRB have been closed “with no enforcement action or adjudication.”
“Their distrust, and the repeated suggestion that the Co-op is violating its contract with the union, is not only a misrepresentation — it is damaging sales,” McCarthy said. “At this time, the Co-op could really use support, not suspicion.”
But according to the IWW, the labor board “found merit” in the workers’ complaints.
“Dill Pickle Worker’s Union is on strike to save the co-op,” the union said on Saturday. “They demand that management settle rather than fight the National Labor Relations Board and bankrupt the store in the process.”
At the same time, 2,500 Cook County workers with SEIU Local 73 kept up their indefinite strike that began on June 25. The strikers include frontline employees who continued coming into work throughout the pandemic, including technicians, medical assistants, custodians, clerks and others at the county’s hospitals, health clinics, offices, courthouses and jail.
The striking Local 73 members — primarily Black women — are some of the county’s lowest paid workers. Now on day 14 of their strike — and nearly nine months into contract negotiations — they say Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bargaining team is pressuring them to accept minuscule raises while simultaneously increasing their health insurance costs by 70 to 80 percent.
The county workers have received widespread support from the local labor movement, community organizations, faith leaders, and socialist and progressive elected officials — and have received hundreds of individual donations to their strike solidarity fund.
On July 7, a group of Local 73 workers held a sit-in outside Preckwinkle’s office after neither she nor her staff accepted a letter from allies in the faith community.
Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Cook County nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also held a one-day walkout over staffing shortages on June 24. Afterward, they won a new contract that includes a commitment from management to hire 300 new registered nurses over the next 18 months, along with 12 to 31 percent pay raises.
For their part, the Portillo’s workers who were on the picket lines for a week plan to continue organizing now that they’ve returned to work.
“We are in this fight together and we will be fighting until the end,” Córdova said.
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.