Improving worker conditions in restaurants has always been a hot topic in Chicago, which isn’t surprising given the city’s role as the birthplace of the modern labor movement. But the spotlight has shined even brighter in recent times. For example, with an ordinance introduced this week to the city council, Mayor Brandon Johnson seems perched to follow through on a campaign promise in abolishing the sub-minimum wage which allows restaurant owners to depend on tips to pay their employees. Another ordinance introduced on Wednesday would increase paid leave.
Outside city hall, pro-labor activists have kept busy. On Thursday morning, workers from El Milagro at a 40-minute press conference announced they had reached a settlement after a complaint was filed in March with the National Labor Relations Board claiming El Milagro management threatened to close the plant or take away vacation days if they continued organizing. The matter was set to go to court, but the settlement averts a trial. Local NLRB officials found merit in workers’ claims of union busting which triggered a court date. However, El Milagro has maintained its innocence.
They sent a statement to media outlets on Wednesday that reiterated their position:
“El Milagro has always complied with the law and will continue to do so. Our company has an open-door policy to address any employee concerns and we act accordingly. This policy reflects our values and commitment to continuous improvement in the workplace.”
Most of the terms of the settlement remain under wraps. A few things have been made public including the fact that El Milagro will now post signs — in English and Spanish — reiterating the workers’ federally protected right to form a union. The notices will be read before each shift, according to Arise.
Thursday’s announcement could put to bed a two-year battle between pro-labor activists and the tortilleria. The battle between El Milagro, one of the city’s most popular tortilla makers, and workers went public in September 2021. Workers, now allied with Arise Chicago — a faith-based workers' rights center that’s been busy organizing within the restaurant sector — were locked out after protesting harsh conditions including ones that led to a COVID breakout. Employees were expected to work nonstop and weren’t allowed to take lunch breaks. Machines were allegedly sped up to produce more tortillas and the manic pace led to employee exhaustion and injury.
Arise has taken an interest in the Spanish speakers at El Milagro, many of them vulnerable to predatory employers — El Milagro in August 2022, according to the complaint, threatened the use of an immigration attorney if workers complained. They claim they’ve helped workers secure wins after six months of negotiations. Labor victories included better wages, air conditioning in break rooms, anti-sexual harassment trainings, and scheduling improvements. El Milagro downplayed Arise’s role, saying the changes were in the works before the group allied with workers.