Organizers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the owners of El Milagro on Thursday, a day after the company ignored a deadline set by workers to respond to a request to discuss low pay and poor working conditions at the company’s two tortilla factories.
Employees subsequently held a another rally and news conference outside El Milagro’s 26th Street headquarters in Little Village attended by approximately 30 workers, 95 community members, and eight public officials, where labor organizers announced that the NLRB complaint had been filed earlier that afternoon.
The complaint, filed by Arise Chicago — the pro-labor organization that has arranged news conferences and rallies to publicize worker concerns — is short:
El Milagro is intimidating and threatening workers after several concerted protected activities, trying to impide [sic] further organizing to improve their working conditions.” The NLRB, which protects workers’ rights to organize, will now investigate the complaint and determine whether a formal action should be taken against El Milagro.
The general public wasn’t aware of the labor strife until last week, though the end of summer had brought a shortage of El Milagro tortillas, which management had blamed on COVID-19-related supply shortages. But workers went public with their concerns with a walkout and rally on Thursday, September 23, where they presented a written list of demands to El Milagro CEO Raulinda Sierra and corporate secretary Jesús López.
At yesterday afternoon’s rally, Martin Salas, who works at the plant at 21st Place and Western Avenue, said the only responses from management came in the form of two letters attached to workers’ paychecks. The first letter denied accusations of unfair pay and ignoring sexual harassment complaints, going on to accuse protestors and labor organizers of trying to unfairly damage the company that described itself as “familia.” The second letter threatened workers that they would be fired if they elected to strike.
These tactics appeared to be working, said Alma Sanchez, another speaker. Sanchez pointed out that Thursday’s crowd had about half as many workers as had attended last week’s rally.
Workers say they have no plans to strike, but they still want to meet with management to discuss improving factory working conditions. Though the tactic was discussed, workers aren’t encouraging an El Milagro boycott, Jorge Mujica, an organizer with Arise, said at the rally.
El Milagro is one of the city’s most popular tortilla companies, founded in 1950 by Raúl López, a Mexican immigrant. A former worker told South Side Weekly that López had been liked and respected by employees, but after he died in the 1990s his son Jesús (the current corporate secretary) took over and the company culture changed.
Management can’t sweep the factories’ systemic problems under the rug by firing workers who are speaking up, said Alfredo Martinez, a current employee who spoke at the rally. In the 13 years he has worked there, employees have been regularly overworked and underpaid. Workers have also complained about sexual harassment and instead of addressing the concerns by disciplining or dismissing alleged sexual harassers, the company has moved them to other positions, Martinez said.
Many speakers at Thursday’s rally, including elected officials, emphasized the cultural importance of tortillas to the city’s Latino community and argued that by showing disrespect to the workers, El Milagro is also disrespecting the community as a whole. “I’m sorry for how much business I’ve been giving this location,” said State Rep. (21st District) Edgar Gonzalez Jr.
Similar concerns of Mexican-American business owners abusing their immigrant workers came up earlier this year at the popular Mexican restaurant Canton Regio in Pilsen after a worker called police claiming that co-owner Daniel Gutierrez Jr. physically attacked him. This was the third such accusation against Gutierrez in three years. While El Milagro affects a larger group of workers, the Canton Regio allegations represent a similar energy, albeit on a smaller scale.