Chicago, IL – Workers at El Milagro tortilla factory walked off the job on September 24,2021, citing many instances of employer misconduct and low wages, and accusations of being “worked like machines” to meet the demand that El Milagro produces. The workers say there are many instances of worker abuse, one being where proper personal protective equipment (PPE) was failed to be provided for the workers, and others where they were allegedly discouraged to bring their own.
The week before, social media was alight with memes that showed grocery stores with handwritten signs that said “Limit 5 packs of Milagro tortillas per family,” with humorous captions from Latinx folks stating there was no way they could only live off fifty tortillas a week, each pack containing ten. Some even posted pictures of buying full cases on Amazon, with zero interest in asking why there was a shortage. They did not know what was happening with El Milagro’s tortilla factory located in the heart of Chicago’s Little Village, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood.
Soon after, protest signs cropped up, with El Milagro’s yellow and red logo, with the letters saying “El Maltrato” – translated as “the mistreatment.” Factory workers were in a full-blown strike after leaving the factory and holding a rally outside.
There have been many rumblings and talk of the poor working conditions at El Milagro, most of which began in 2020, right around when the pandemic was about two months in. Five employees have died of coronavirus complications – one of them being Roberto Escobar, who brought in his own PPE.
Arise Chicago, a worker’s rights organization in Chicago, undertook the endeavor of defending the workers and the story has resonated all over the United States with anyone who supports collective action. At a press conference on the day workers walked off the job protesting the unsafe and unjust working conditions, they demanded that the company meet with the workers’ committee by September 29th. The company has yet to meet that demand. This led the workers at El Milagro to call for a Community Rally, at which elected officials and community members would announce their support for the cause.
El Milagro production workers have worked under low pay and harsh conditions for years, some who have been working here since 1979. During the pandemic, they did not stop working in order to support their families and feed the Chicagoland area, as did most low wage workers who had no choice but to continue working. While risking their lives going to work during the pandemic, at least 85 workers contracted COVID-19 on the job. This is apart from the five that died from the complications that were mentioned earlier. With some workers not returning to protect their health, current workers are overworked in unsafe, unhealthy, brutal conditions and dismal wages.
Workers contacted Arise Chicago sharing several unlawful violations committed by the company. Workers also reported new hires being paid more than workers who had been at El Milagro for 15-40 years. Arise Chicago educated workers on their rights, and workers decided to form workplace committees. El Milagro has hired an anti-union consultant and a psychologist to intimidate workers from taking collective action to improve their working conditions. This is a form of union busting, but as of now, the workers have not demanded a union, rather, have only gone on strike to demand that things improve. A union would be the natural next step.
Workers will lead a press conference to share current problems at production facilities and their demands to the company. Elected leaders and clergy will show support for the workers. With 60 workers behind them, leadership is materializing in the form of two workers, Jacinta Castro and Martin Salas, who have come forward to lead their coworkers towards a brighter future.
“Enough is enough. We demand better working conditions,” Castro said. “The abuse has gone on long enough and we make quality products. It is time for the company to treat us like it.”