Workers at El Milagro’s tortilla manufacturing facilities in Chicago walked off the job this afternoon, in protest of low pay and harsh working conditions.
The temporary work stoppage comes as grocery stores around the city struggle to stock El Milagro’s tortillas. Workers are asking company representatives to sit down with them to discuss workplace improvements by Sept. 29, lest they escalate their protests.
“It’s going to be a fight,” El Milagro employee and Spanish speaker Alma Sanchez said through a translator. “That’s why we’re making these demands together, to improve our working conditions, to have better pay and to improve conditions overall.”
Dozens of employees are participating in the demonstration Thursday in front of the company’s Little Village headquarters. The employees are not unionized but are organizing with Arise Chicago, a nonprofit workers’ rights group.
The complaints at El Milagro have come in for years, predating the pandemic, said Shelly Ruzicka, communications and development director for Arise. But in the last 18 months, the situation has gotten dire. At least one of El Milagro factories shut down for several weeks in spring 2020, after a worker died from COVID-19, the Chicago Tribune reported. Other workers tested positive and showed symptoms then.
Sanchez said she knows of five people at her facility, at 31st Boulevard and Western Avenue, that died of COVID complications.
“The company in my opinion has been negligent,” she said in Spanish. “I myself contracted COVID at work in January.”
El Milagro was not alone. COVID upended the packaged food industry, as positive cases shut down manufacturing facilities in the midst of a sales surge driven by consumers stuck at home. Employees are walking off the job in the wake of that upheaval, saying they are sick of risking their lives at work for remedial pay and poor working conditions.
A tight labor market has made matters worse for employers in the industry. Workers at Oreo-maker Mondelez International just ended a weeklong strike that affected facilities around the country, including two in Chicago. The effects of such a stoppage can ripple and create an opening for competitors.
Pete’s Market proactively purchased extra product to offset shortages caused by the Mondelez strike, said Leno Asuncion, grocery buyer of the Chicago-based grocery store chain. But the supply chain will likely be disrupted until mid-January from that work stoppage.
Sourcing El Milagro tortillas has also “been a definite challenge,” Asuncion said in an email. “We received minimal to no tortillas from them, but thankfully other vendors have stepped in to fill the demand.”
Sanchez attributed the tortilla supply issues to a lack of workers, a problem that higher wages would help fix.
“There are not people to work,” she said in Spanish. “They need to raise the wages.”
The employees are also calling for a workplace free from labor abuses and sexual harassment, sincere investigations into reports of such behavior and accountability for violators.
Representatives from El Milagro could not immediately be reached for comment.
El Milagro got its start in 1950, eight years after founder Raul Lopez immigrated from Mexico, according to the company’s website. Lopez worked full time on the railroad in the early days, and eventually quit that job to focus on expanding his tortilla company.