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Amid simmering labor dispute, El Milagro workers file formal complaint alleging retaliation

The charge filed Thursday with the National Labor Relations Board comes after workers for the popular tortilla brand came forward with allegations of harsh working conditions and sexual harassment.

A group of workers, supporters, and elected officials march towards El Milagro’s headquarters for a press conference, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
A group of workers, supporters, and elected officials march towards El Milagro’s headquarters for a press conference, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

El Milagro employees filed a formal labor complaint Thursday against the popular tortilla brand and later urged company leaders to address their claims of workplace sexual harassment and oppressive working conditions during a protest alongside elected officials in Little Village.

Organizers with Arise Chicago, a nonprofit workers rights group supporting the El Milagro employees, announced during the protest that an unfair labor practices charge has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board amid the simmering dispute.

“It would have been so simple to sit down and talk,” Jorge Mujica, of Arise, said to company leaders after detailing the charge he filed on behalf of the workers.

The move comes after a group of El Milagro workers walked off the job last Thursday and held their first protest in front of the company’s tortilleria at 3048 W. 26thSt., where they called for fair wages and brought to light the allegations of harsh and unsafe working conditions and pervasive sexual harassment.

Some workers complained they were later locked out of one of the company’s tortilla production facilities and only let back inside to retrieve their belongings after they called Chicago police.

Company leaders have since ignored a request to meet this week to discuss the list of grievances and have “further insulted the workers,” according to Arise Working Center Director Laura Garza. While the workers haven’t unionized, organizers claimed the company hired “a union buster and a psychologist to intimidate the workers” and distributed letters this week to instill fear in them.

As a result, the labor charge was filed earlier Thursday.

“El Milagro is intimidating and threatening workers after several concerted protected activities, trying to impide [sic] further organizing to improve their working conditions,” the complaint states.

El Milagro didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alma Sanchez has repeatedly blown the whistle about sexual harassment she and other El Milagro employees have allegedly faced at work – allegations she had long suppressed fearing she could be fired. But given the outpouring of support she’s received, Sanchez explained Thursday the prospect of reprisal would no longer silence her.

“That’s what I have to tell all my workers and all the public: Forget about fear,” she said through an interpreter. “Yes, there are risks. But I am willing to take them because my voice has to be heard.”

Sanchez and two other El Milagro employees were joined by a list of elected officials, including state Sen. Celina Villanueva; state Reps. Aaron Ortiz, Theresa Mah and Edgar Gonzalez; Cook County Commissioners Brandon Johnson and Alma Anaya; and Alds. Mike Rodriguez and Byron Sigcho-Lopez. Some of the political leaders, including Anaya, D-7th, spoke out strongly in support of the workers and vowed to fight for their interests.

“Don’t tarnish the name Milagro,” she said. “Don’t tarnish the reputation that you have built of being a staple in the community because the second that you’re messing with the workers — that you’re messing with our community — we will take our claws out and we will protect ours.”

Cook Country Board Commissioner Alma Anaya, of the 7th District, speaks to reporters during a press conference outside El Milagro’s headquarters located at 3048 West. 26th Street, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Cook Country Board Commissioner Alma Anaya, of the 7th District, speaks to reporters during a press conference outside El Milagro’s headquarters located at 3048 W. 26th St., Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times