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El Milagro workers return to tortilla production facility after lockout, protests

The tortilla company locked out workers Thursday from its Chicago facility after a protest over working conditions and alleged violations of Chicago’s earned sick time ordinance. After a rally Friday, workers were allowed to return.

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, protested harsh working conditions following the company’s decision to lock out protesting workers on Thursday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

El Milagro workers were allowed to return to work Friday after organizers say the company locked out employees who left the job to protest dangerous working conditions.

After walking out Thursday, workers say they were locked out of one of the company’s tortilla production facilities — many unable to retrieve car keys, wallets, and other personal belongings. A pregnant worker couldn’t get vital medication.

Workers said they were allowed back inside only after calling Chicago police to the scene. The company then told workers to report to Human Resources on Friday, where employees were eventually permitted to return to work. El Milagro also agreed to pay workers for Thursday’s shift.

In the wake of a national tortilla shortage, conditions in the company’s Chicago facilities have turned from “bad” to “extreme,” workers’ rights activists said. Workers say production has been ramped up to dangerous speeds, causing hand and back injuries. Workers also protested a lack of air conditioning and alleged the company retaliated against workers who called in sick by suspending them for up to a week, a violation of Chicago’s earned sick time ordinance.

The company also placed an armed security guard at the production facility at 21st Place and Western Avenue Friday morning, hoping to intimidate them, workers said.

Martin Salas, has worked for El Milagro for a decade and said he had never seen an armed officer outside his workplace before.

Armed security guards stand in front of El Milagro Inc. in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood, Friday morning, Sept. 24, 2021. Mark Capapas/Sun-Times.
Two security guards, one of whom is armed, stand in front of the 21st Place and Western Ave El Milagro facility Friday afternoon. Workers say the guards were put there to intimidate them following a protest. | Mark Capapas/Sun-Times.

The security officer had “a bullet-proof vest, a gun, a club. That’s intimidation from the employer,” Salas said. “We’re only asking for our rights that we have as employees of El Milagro. Just as they have rights as employers, we too have rights as workers.”

The workers received the news that they were permitted to return to work on Friday after community leaders and politicians gathered outside an El Milagro office. Workers held picket signs and a giant burrito with the words “El Maltrato Burritos … De Abuso” in bold red letters over a gold background, an imitation of the company’s logo. The phrase translates as “Mistreatment Burritos, made with abuse.”

Workers were also hit hard by COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, at least 85 workers at Chicago El Milagro facilities in have contracted the coronavirus; five have died, according to Arise Chicago, a nonprofit workers rights group.

Protesting workers were joined by activists from Arise, along with Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Ald. Mike Rodríguez (22nd).

Ald. Mike Rodríguez said the El Milagro workers were advocating for “basic human rights,” and called on the public to support them. He rallied with the workers on Friday morning, Sept. 24, 2021.
Ald. Mike Rodríguez said the El Milagro workers were advocating for “basic human rights,” and called on the public to support them.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

“They’re not asking for anything outside of basic human rights,” Rodríguez said. “Here, at the Milagro plants, five people died from this deadly pandemic. They suffered for us. They died for us, so that we could eat. The least we can do is stand with them and fight for their rights.”

Though El Milagro’s production employees returned to the job, those workers are still waiting for the company to promise better working conditions, said Jorge Mújica, Strategic Campaigns Organizer for Arise. Though still without a union, workers from both the 21st Place and 31st Street facilities recently organized the El Milagro Tortillas Workers Committee to advocate for better conditions.

Mújica said he considered the day a “victory.” Workers, he said, are not back to square one.

“We’re on square four, and the company has to put up,” Mújica said. “When the workers create a labor organization and elect a committee to represent them, the company has the duty to sit down with them to talk.”

Jorge Mujica, low-income and immigrant worker organizer for ARISE, speaks outside Tortilleria El Milagro in Little Village, Friday morning, Sept. 24, 2021. Jorge Mujica, Strategic Campaigns Organizer for Arise, considered the company’s response on Friday a “victory,” but noted El Milagro still has an obligation to meet with a workers’ committee.
Jorge Mujica, atrategic campaigns organizer for Arise, considered the company’s response on Friday a “victory,” but noted El Milagro still has an obligation to meet with a workers’ committee.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times