“You will hear the voice of my memories stronger than the voice of my death —that is, if death ever had a voice.”
— Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
CHICAGO, IL — Is there a voice for the dead? The workers of El Milagro think so.
On Tuesday, El Milagro workers gathered outside one of the tortillería‘s Chicago locations for a Día de los Muertos vigil in honor of five coworkers who died from COVID-19.
“We will never forget our coworkers who lost their lives,” said El Milagro worker leader Guillermo Romero. He spoke with great pride about working for El Milagro, with its reputation for quality tortilla products, but he hopes that one day El Milagro will also earn a reputation as a great employer.
Eighty-five El Milagro workers contracted COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. Since then, the workers have organized themselves, building up their collective voice one step at a time with the help of Arise Chicago.
Trabajador Guillermo de El Milagro: “Estamos luchando por justicia en El Milagro y condiciones laborales mejores en El Milagro.” pic.twitter.com/qtOlpZQMaP
— Arise Chicago (@AriseChicago) November 3, 2021
On September 23, 2021, the workers staged a walkout. When they tried to return to work two hours later, they were illegally locked out. On September 24, worker leaders held a press conference demanding that the workers be allowed to return to work. Management conceded, and the workers were allowed to return and were paid the full six hours they were gone the previous day, including the four hours they were locked out.
El Milagro workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after management threatened to fire them if they went on strike. In addition to the ULP complaint, the workers filed one with the Chicago Office of Labor Standards (OLS) claiming El Milagro was in violation of the Chicago Paid Sick Leave ordinance. Understaffed and unable to meet customer demand for tortillas, El Milagro had resorted to illegally scheduling seven-day workweeks without rest. In response to El Milagro’s violation of the One Day Rest in Seven Act (ORDISA), the workers filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL).
On Tuesday, October 26, El Milagro workers and Arise Chicago announced their complaints with OLS and IDOL. The next day, El Milagro’s management capitulated, and the workers won Sundays off, securing their first victory.
But the fight is not over. Workers continue to organize to improve safety and pay.
Today, El Día de los Muertos, we honor all those workers who have died in the workplace. No one else should die in the workplace. That is why we are here! pic.twitter.com/7wpHV5oiiu
— Arise Chicago (@AriseChicago) November 3, 2021
Romero spoke of the incredible heat inside the production facility, which he’s been forced to endure for 16 years. It’s starting to take a toll on his body now that quotas have increased. Romero rubbed his shoulders, explaining that the extra load causes him pain. Before the pandemic, he would produce 50 pallets with 50 cases of tortillas each for a total of 2,500 cases. Understaffing at El Milagro ultimately increased Romero’s production to 60 pallets (3,000 cases) without an increase in his pay.
It should not surprise anyone that the El Milagro workers fought back right after the death of five coworkers. “We are seduced by death,” as Octavio Paz wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude. “The fascination it exerts over us is the result, perhaps, of our hermit-like solitude and of the fury with which we break out of it.”
Workers are mythologized as independent beings with the ability to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, regardless of working conditions. The El Milagro workers have broken that hermit-like solitude by organizing collectively. Together they are the fury.
We lost too many loved ones to this pandemic including five El Milagro workers. @AriseChicago and the El Milagro Workers Committee hosted a vigil last night because this fight is not over. By organizing for better working conditions, we honor their lives! La lucha sigue. pic.twitter.com/mgP5SGG4iL
— Congressman Chuy García (@RepChuyGarcia) November 3, 2021
The Día de los Muertos altar was decorated with sugar skulls and votive candles of San Judas Tadeo. Pan dulce sat on top of the altar as an ofrenda for the dead. Romero and his coworkers held signs that read The only MIRACLE is that we are still alive.
No Día de los Muertos altar is complete without the cempasúchil flower with its vibrantly gold petals reminding us that a celebration of death is inherently a celebration of life —we die because we lived. It’s said that the pungent scent of the cempasúchil guides the spirits of the deceased back to us.
That’s the thing about solidarity: it exists in death as in life.
Arturo “Tootie” Alvarez is based in Chicago. He trucks. He writes. Not at the same time. Twitter: @TootieAlvarez