Aggrieved workers at the two El Milagro tortilla plants in Chicago announced Monday morning that management had made some concessions in ongoing labor negotiations that began last fall. Workers reps say they’ve won wage increases totaling $1.3 million, money that would have taken employees five years to earn under former conditions.
Labor advocates say they’ve convinced management to install air conditioning in lunchrooms. However, the company has yet to follow through on other promises, including ending a seven-day work week. The company employs about 400 people in Chicago; 100 of those workers have been involved in the labor campaign.
Other concessions from management, according to a news release from Arise Chicago, a pro-labor group that has organized rallies and publicized worker concerns, include ending unlawful practices for employees to be paid for sick days and giving payouts for unused sick time. Workers have also negotiated sexual harassment training for managers. The company has also agreed to pay for tools instead of forcing workers to provide their own gear.
El Milagro claims that the raises have nothing to do with worker efforts. “El Milagro has been listening and working since early 2021 to review wages and benefits, and instituted wage increases last summer, not because of Arise or any other outside source,” the company said in a statement. “The pay increase happened six months ago. We are not here, however, to argue with those who spread misinformation and outright lies.”
The workers, who are not unionized, began their campaign in September with a walkout and march down 26th Street in Little Village to El Milagro’s headquarters to deliver a letter to El Milagro CEO Raulinda Sierra and corporate secretary Jesús López. In response, management locked out the protesters who returned to the Little Village plant to finish their shifts.
Despite multiple requests from the worker committee to meet, El Milagro management has yet to convene with the worker committee. A week after the initial walkout, Arise filed two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that allege the company hired a group of advisors and security guards to surveil and intimidate workers. The NLRB is still investigating.
El Milagro has also not acknowledged the workers’ demand that it stop speeding up the production line in order to meet higher quotas.
“They are still speeding up the machines, causing pain in our backs and our hands,” says a worker named Olga in an Arise statement. “But the company doesn’t care. We put in all our strength to work hard and keep up, until we simply can’t do it any more.”
El Milagro claimed that it was simply trying to make up for a national tortilla shortage caused by supply chain issues, but the organizers say that the shortage was because of a lack of labor: many employees quit during the pandemic after COVID-19 infected 85 workers — leading to a shutdown of the Little Village plant in April 2020 — and killed five. Arise claims the company had been unable to attract new hires, despite offering hourly wages that were, in some cases, higher than those it paid to longtime employees.
Workers say they are pleased by the wage increases, but they are disappointed that management still refuses to meet with them and that it has yet to fulfill the promise it made in October to close down both plants on Sundays. Furthermore, workers say that employees on the third shift are regularly sent home early and aren’t able to make up for the lost pay from hours lost.
El Milagro was founded in 1950 by Raul López, a Mexican immigrant and father of Jesús López, the current corporate secretary. A former worker told South Side Weekly that Raúl López had been liked and respected by employees, but after he died in the 1990s and Jesús took over, the company culture changed. This may be symptomatic of tensions between Mexican American business owners and immigrant employees: in 2020, a worker at the popular Pilsen restaurant Cantón Regio accused owner Daniel Gutierrez of attacking him. This was the third accusation against Gutierrez in as many years.
El Milagro remains one of the largest tortilla makers in Chicago, and its tortillas, chips, and taco shells are distributed nationwide. It employs more than 400 workers in Illinois and, in addition to the two plants in Pilsen and Little Village, it also has a third plant in San Marcos, Texas, as well as three taquerias in the Chicago area and two more in Austin, Texas, and Doraville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.