On Thursday, September 30, workers at the popular Chicago tortilla company El Milagro were joined by over a hundred supporters, community members, and public officials as they organized a rally and press conference to address the brutal working conditions that they had been subjected to by the company.
This latest rally took place exactly a week after workers at the flagship facility in Little Village staged a temporary walkout citing dangerous conditions at their workplace which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic including: being unlawfully forced to work seven days a week, excessive workloads in extreme heat, violations of Chicago’s Earned Sick Time ordinance by the company, sexual harassment, and increased intimidation and threats for speaking out.
As a result of the intimidation at the hands of the bosses, the pro-labor organization Arise Chicago announced that they had filed a complaint with the National Labor Review Board against the owners of El Milagro on behalf of the workers.
In April 2020, the company had announced a two week shutdown after a worker contracted and died from the COVID-19 virus. Despite this, workers claim that the company failed to provide workers with proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and even reprimanded those that brought their own face covering from home. The negligence on the side of ownership at El Milagro resulted in the deaths of 5 workers due to complications from the coronavirus.
You can show additional support for the workers at El Milagro by signing this petition circulated by Arise Chicago.
Vicko Alvarez: What is your name and how long have you been working at El Milagro?
Alfredo Martinez: Alfredo Martinez and I’ve been working here 13 years as a part of the night shift.
V: Where in Chicago do you live?
A: Back of the Yards
V: If there was a particular workplace grievance you wanted to bring attention to, what would it be?
A: It all started with our wages. That was the first complaint we had months back. New hires were being offered a higher wage than those of us that had been here for 13, 14, 15 years. When nothing was done about our concerns, that’s when we contacted Arise. That’s when we started to see a few changes. There was a small increase to our pay, but based on our workload and the amount of time we’ve been working here, it didn’t seem sufficient. In reality, we aren’t even fighting for more money right now—we’re basically fighting for better conditions. People come in to start working here, and don’t come back the next day because of the excessive workload. Problems with the machinery, we don’t have mechanics. When something goes wrong with the machinery because there aren’t any mechanics, we just have to continue with whatever equipment is available and it results in excess work for our people. There’s problems with the speed, it changes the quality of the product.
V: You’ve been here for 13 years, have you seen other workers getting raises, higher wages before you?
A: Yes, plenty. That’s a big reason why this fight started.
V: We’ve heard that sexual abuse is rampant in the factory.
A: It’s definitely a very serious concern. I’ve heard about it happening, but I work in the back area operating the machinery and the women in the factory are in the packing area.
V: How did you all get connected with the workers in other El Milagro factories
A: We actually weren’t aware of this, but workers in the other factories were already getting connected. Arise was the ones that told us that other sites were also speaking out throughout the state. We realized that all of our grievances were the same in every workplace. People want to work, but the workload is so excessive that they leave. They come in to start and leave after their break, or they’ll finish their first day but never come back. That makes it really difficult for those of us that have been here for years. It’s not that we don’t care about El Milagro, we’ve been here for years for a reason.
V: This is actually not the first time there’s been a workplace struggle at a Tortilleria here. El Rey had similar organizing 40 years ago. How does it feel to be part of something that doesn’t typically happen very often—workplace organizing at a factory like this.
A: Different workplaces are going to have their own problems. And when workers in one factory hear about workers in another factory uniting and fighting back, they’ll realize that conditions are actually very similar to theirs.
V: Are the workers here talking about a union?
A: We haven’t talked about either a union or a strike. We’re talking about better conditions in our workplace. If the owners of the factory would have taken part in the discussion with us, this would be over. It would have been that easy. But they’re speculating that we are looking for a union or that we’re trying to strike. We haven’t even considered it yet. Those of us here at this action are actually working our next shift tonight at 7pm.
V: Have you ever taken part in organizing in the past?
A: Never in my life. I’m a single father of two kids with autism. But I’ve always been involved with groups advocating for my children.
V: What’s it like to be part of this fight while trying to care for your family?
A: It’s difficult. When you have kids with disabilities you have to isolate yourself from several places at times. But if you’re afraid and don’t stand up to injustice, where is that going to take you? Life is so short that you need to do what’s necessary at times. Otherwise when it’s your time to go, you’re gonna look back and realize that you didn’t stand up when you needed to.
V: What would you say to workers who are afraid to stand up?
A: Don’t be afraid. Fear doesn’t take you places. Fear doesn’t put food on the table. You don’t want to look back and think “I was afraid.”