Workers at Chicago’s two El Milagro tortilla plants say low pay and poor working conditions have led to a low employee retention rate which are the culprits behind the city’s tortilla shortage. Now supported by labor organizers, employees went public with their concerns Thursday afternoon with a walkout and a march down 26th Street toward El Milagro’s Little Village tortilleria, followed by a news conference. The protesters delivered a written list of demands to management and requested a response by September 29.
Later in the evening, 14 workers waited outside the plant for an hour and a half chanting “queremos trabajar!” (“we want to work!”) before five police officers finally intervened and escorted them back inside the factory, one by one, to retrieve personal items such as wallets, car keys, and medicine, a labor organizer told Eater Chicago by phone from outside the plant. They were not permitted to return to the production line. Labor organizers say this qualifies as an illegal employer lockout.
More than 60 workers carried picket signs at the march and yelled slogans like “Es el Maltrato, no es El Milagro,” which translates to “It’s the mistreated, it is not El Milagro!” El Milagro has remained relatively quiet throughout September while stores across the city have limited the number of tortillas sold to customers, but its reaction to Thursday’s protest — refusing to allow workers back inside its Little Village plant to resume their scheduled shift — spoke volumes to the workers.
Although El Milagro said in a statement to Univision that the tortilla shortage is due to national supply chain issues, workers say it’s really because of the lack of labor. Many workers left El Milagro during the pandemic for various reasons — including an outbreak of COVID-19 at the plant that infected 85 employees and killed five. (The novel coronavirus outbreak led to a two-week shutdown in April 2020 and another tortilla shortage.) Protesters say to make up the difference and increase production that El Milagro has sped up the machines while trying to attract new hires by paying them $16 an hour, equal or more than longtime employees who have been with the company for 20 or 30 years. Women who work at the factory also allege sexual harassment and say that management ignored their complaints.
Factory workers have been especially vulnerable during the pandemic: they don’t have the luxury of working from home to avoid COVID-19. Many are also immigrants and lack the resources to search for safer and better-paying jobs. El Milagro workers have relied on Arise Chicago, a local labor organizing group, to help them make the public aware of issues at the plant.
Pedro Manzanares, a Chicago worker, tells Univision that El Milagro’s strategy of speeding up the machines just adds to worker anxiety. It makes his job harder and potentially more dangerous, leaving him seconds to make decisions as packages roll off the line at an increased speed.
“Working conditions are harsh,” Manzanares said at Thursday’s news conference. “Workers are tired. Enough is enough.”
El Milagro workers are not the only ones who have had enough: workers at Chicago-based Mondelez International, producer of Oreos, recently went on a week-long strike for a better contract. The Mondelez workers, unlike those at El Milagro, are unionized. The strike had a ripple effect, causing a nationwide shortage of Mondelez snacks and leaving an opening for competitors.
Irma Gonzalez, who works in the quality control department at the Little Village plant and was one of the 14 locked-out employees, thinks something similar may happen with El Milagro. She says that she has noticed a decrease in quality of the tortillas since management started speeding up the production line. “I do think [our organizing] is going to have a big impact,” she says through a translator. “This is a big issue in our community. The Latino community really relies on tortillas. They need us to work.”
El Milagro employees in other plants around the country are also working in unsafe conditions: in June, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the company’s plant in San Marcos, Texas, was violating safety laws. It fined the company $218,839 for failing to put controls on its machines to keep them from starting up unexpectedly during maintenance, increasing the chance of amputation and other injuries.
The company was founded in 1950 by Raul Lopez, a Mexican immigrant and has since become one of Chicago’s most beloved tortilla brands. El Milagro now has more than 400 employees in Chicago. In addition to the plants in Little Village, Pilsen, and San Marcos, it also has two retail stores and three taquerias in Chicago and restaurants in Austin, Texas, and Chamblee, Georgia.