For Latinos or anyone else adding tortillas to their weekly grocery list in the Midwest, the El Milagro brand is a cultural icon. In Chicago it’s an institution, the Michael Jordan of tortillerías.
I distinctly recall stacks of the paper packages of tortilla sitting on the kitchen counter, the table, or on a shelf in the fridge at my mom’s house, my aunts’ houses, and even more at my grandma’s house—at every Latino house I stepped foot in. Either the paper packages or the tostadas in a clear plastic bag or, come party time, the paper bag of tortilla chips with the clear plastic window, always with the logo: a cartoon lady with a long black braid, white shirt and long black dress with an apron, her legs tucked under her, knees in front, chanclas on her feet and hoops in her ears, rolling masa out the ancient way while tortillas cook on a squat old-school comal, a little fire blazing in its belly, a basket of warm tortillas next to her. Plus a few tall cobs of corn and the words EL MILAGRO® CORN/MAIZ TORTILLAS in a gold oval bordered by the company slogan: “En el Nombre lleva la Fama y en el Producto la Calidad.”
That the company was founded in Chicago way back when and has been based there ever since was a source of pride for many Latino Chicagoans, especially among the U.S.-born who, like El Milagro itself, represented a bit of the old country sprouting up in the new one.
So when I caught wind of a dispute between El Milagro’s workers and its management, though I’m old enough to know that labor disputes are bound to happen nearly everywhere under our way of running things, the news took a piece out of me.
It all started… Well, Olga Amados, who works in packaging and has become one of the spokeswomen for her fellow workers, tells me that the abuse has been happening for years now, beginning with management’s failure to conduct regular employee reviews and thus promote and reward solid work.
“When we started to work there they told us we were getting an evaluation every year,” she says. “I’ve been working there for 10 years already, and they’ve only given me like five or six evaluations…. So the raise we’re supposed to get every year, well, we don’t see it. And so one feels like they’re not being motivated, you know?”
— Arise Chicago (@AriseChicago) September 30, 2021
Things got worse during the pandemic, with management telling the workers they couldn’t take sick days without proof of illness, either a prescription or even just a receipt.
“I had to look in garbage cans to find a receipt from a pharmacy to prove that I bought some medicine in order to get paid by El Milagro when I took a sick day,” Ms. Amados told Arise Chicago, which “fight[s] workplace injustice through education, organizing, and advocating for public policy changes.”
I should mention that the location where Amados works, on 31st Street, saw five workers die of COVID.
Much of Arise’s work deals with the Latino and Polish immigrant communities, both Chicago institutions in and of themselves. “Our membership is primarily Spanish-speaking immigrants,” says Shelly Ruzicka, director of communications and development at Arise Chicago. “We also have a Polish-speaking membership base. But the vast majority are Spanish speakers.”
Ms. Ruzicka stresses that Arise isn’t leading the workers in their fight against El Milagro; that’s not what Arise does. Workers bring their complaints to the group and Arise tells them what their rights are, and their options.
“We’re part of this movement that’s a part of the labor movement but is a little bit different in that we work primarily with non-union workers,” Ruzicka says. “We’ve been around for 30 years. Workers know us. We’re really well known in the Polish and Spanish-speaking communities.”
“Our model is not a social service model. We don’t help people… We want people to know their rights and learn how to take action themselves.”
After months of the company requiring workers to bring doctors’ notes or pharmacy receipts for paid sick days and punishing those who didn’t comply —which is illegal in Chicago thanks to the city’s Paid Sick Leave ordinance— on September 14, Martin Salas, who’s also been working at El Milagro for 10 years, filed with the Chicago Office of Labor Standards.
Then on Thursday, September 23, workers at El Milagro’s multiple locations scattered across the city’s Southwest Side staged a brief walkout, demanding that the company meet with them in one week to hear their grievances. The walkout was short, only two hours, meant as a tiny show of force by the workers. But when the walkouts at the 21st Place and Western location tried returning to work they were locked out—also illegal.
BREAKING: the workers who make Chicago's favorite tortilla brand, El Milagro, have just walked out of a production facility in Little Village to demand an end to unsafe & unfair working conditions. They're supported by @AriseChicago pic.twitter.com/4YUeWyXe6O
— Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) September 23, 2021
The workers held a press conference the next morning, demanding that all workers be allowed to return to their jobs and again calling on management, namely the company’s owners, to meet with the workers and hash things out. The press conference must’ve scared somebody in the company’s front office because El Milagro allowed all the walkouts to return to their jobs and even paid them for the six hours they were gone and locked out.
Management never responded to the worker’s request for a sit-down, but they did include a threatening letter in the next round of paychecks, saying that any worker who protested would be fired—again, very illegal.
Armed with the knowledge of their rights thanks to Arise Chicago, the workers immediately filed another complaint, this time with the National Labor Relations Board, about the letters.
On top of the denial of sick days and the threatening letters from management, the workers are given hectic work schedules, with workers at some locations forced to show up seven days a week, violating Illinois’ One Day Rest In Seven Act (ODRISA) which requires that employees get a full 24 hours off of work in every calendar week.
So on October 14, another worker at El Milagro, Juana Olivares, filed an ODRISA complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor. “It really affects all of us who are working seven days a week,” Olivares told Arise Chicago. “By the last day of the week, we are so tired and frustrated because we don’t have a single day off. We have been asking for this for years.”
That’s three complaints filed since mid-September with various labor agencies at the local, state, and city levels. Plus I forgot to mention that on the day Mr. Salas filed his Paid Sick Leave complaint with the City, he also filed a Fair Workweek complaint. That ordinance requires employers like El Milagro to give predictable work schedules and compensation for last-minute changes.
What happens now? Well, the Chicago Office of Labor Standards has the power to subpoena the owners of El Milagro and audit the company’s labor practices. “The complaint allows the city to review El Milagro’s overall practices regarding the Paid Sick Leave and Fair Workweek ordinances, and to implement corrective actions if necessary across the whole company,” says Jorge Mújica, Arise’s campaigns organizer and a well-known activist who ran for alderman as an openly declared socialist in the heavily Latino 25th Ward.
On Wednesday, October 27, the workers at El Milagro announced that the management had told them they would now have Sundays off, beginning in 10 days. “The company’s decision comes one day after El Milagro workers and Arise Chicago announced the filing of Chicago and Illinois employment violation complaints, including violation of the Illinois One Day Rest in Seven Act,” reads a press release.
That’s a big win for the workers. Plus Ms. Amados tells me that after working in the hot summer, the company has finally installed an air-conditioning system.
But on the next day, Thursday, October 28, the workers announced they had filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. It seems that after the walkout the company placed an armed guard outside the location where Mr. Salas works, plus an unmarked car with two other guards parked out front.
Management has also been hinting at “bad consequences because of their immigration status” should the workers continue with their protest.
I applaud the efforts of @AriseChicago organizers and the courage of El Milagro workers to stand up for basic human rights! This is why we need to pass meaningful immigration reform, so that law-breaking employers don’t engage in abusive practices and threaten with deportation. https://t.co/h51J88fXjB
— Congressman Chuy García (@RepChuyGarcia) October 28, 2021
“Now they are always surveilling us,” Salas told Arise Chicago. “There’s an unmarked car with two people every day now. What do they officially do for the company? I don’t know. But it’s obvious the intention is to intimidate us. El Milagro wants to scare us, but we’re going to keep fighting.”
Despite everything they’ve been through and everything they’re up against, the workers remain undaunted.
“After all the intimidation that El Milagro has waged against us protesting workers,” says worker Alfredo Benedetti, “many of us remain firm and convinced that we can win better treatment from HR and owners, with a fair and dignified wage and better conditions at our workplace.”
El Milagro’s front office in Texas refused a request for comment.
UPDATE: An earlier version stated that the walkout had been for six hours, when in fact the workers walked out for two hours but were paid for the full six hours including the time they were locked out. And armed guards are no longer stationed outside any of the locations as previously indicated.