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El Milagro workers file new federal complaint and claim a victory

The employees claim the tortilla manufacturer is unlawfully threatening them based on their immigration status.

Luis Olivo, an El Milagro employee, worker along with other El Milagro workers from 21st Street and 31st Street speak to reporters in front of the El Milagro headquarters at 3050 W. 26th St. in the Little Village neighborhood, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2021. Workers walked off the job at both the Little Village and Pilsen production facilities over alleged poor working conditions.
Luis Olivo, an El Milagro employee, speaks at a September protest outside the company’s location at 3050 W. 26th St.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Workers at tortilla company El Milagro who have filed complaints with government agencies about its labor practices announced new charges against the company Thursday and claimed victory on one issue.

The production-line staff, represented by workers’ rights group Arise Chicago, have filed complaints with a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board. They allege El Milagro is unlawfully intimidating workers by warning them about their immigration status and by engaging in employee surveillance, some of it by armed security guards.

Through Arise Chicago, the workers said the company has advised them it is ending a seven-day work schedule for some shifts. The schedule formed the basis of a complaint filed with the Illinois Department of Labor alleging El Milagro was violating a law mandating one day off per week.

A spokesperson retained by El Milagro provided a company statement that said it has used security guards for more than 20 years because it deals in cash sales. The statement continued:

“El Milagro has never threatened employees based on immigration status. This is against our values and what we believe in as a company. The accusation is an outright lie.

“The company has been working with an independent consultant to listen to all/each employee’s concerns and ideas and address them as part of a multi-faceted strategic planning process.

“These are false claims of outside agitators whose motives are clearly not in the workers’ best interests, but rather motivated by self-interest.”

El Milagro also said it provides competitive wages and benefits and “values every employee.”

Shelly Ruzicka, communications director at Arise, said the company has warned workers that if they contact federal agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, it will bring unwanted attention to their immigration status. She said claims that OSHA “will check everyone’s papers” are unfounded.

Ruzicka said more than 100 workers are involved in a campaign for better wages and working conditions. She said the workers have organized internally and have not decided if they will seek membership in a union.

El Milagro worker Alfredo Benedetti, in comments provided by Arise, said workers will not be intimidated and will continue to press for “a fair and dignified wage and better conditions at our workplace.”

The NLRB is interviewing employees in response to the complaints, Ruzicka said. The NLRB confirmed it is conducting an investigation. The state’s labor agency has acknowledged opening an investigation of the company.

The workers have drawn support from several politicians. In a statement provided by Arise Chicago, Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya (D-7th), criticized the company for its alleged employee threats based on immigration status.

“It is immigrants who are on the frontline making and buying El Milagro tortillas. It is immigrants that kept El Milagro open and making large profit margins last year,” Anaya said. “Our immigrant community has kept our country running during the pandemic and deserves dignity and respect. These threats are unacceptable, violate workers’ rights and have no place in our community.”

El Milagro says on its website that it was founded in 1950 by Raul Lopez. Workers said his family still owns the company. The credit-reporting firm Dun & Bradstreet lists El Milagro as having more than 500 employees.

Its locations include 3050 W. 26th St. and 21st Place and Western Avenue.