El Milagro workers cite raises, but say abuses continue

The employees, who conducted a short walkout last year, say the company has broken some promises, while El Milagro cites “lies” coming from “outside agitators.”

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El Milagro worker Luis Olivo addresses fellow picketers last September at a company location at 3050 W. 26th St.

El Milagro worker Luis Olivo addresses fellow picketers last September at a company location at 3050 W. 26th St.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Workers at the El Milagro tortilla factory who called attention to their complaints with a short walkout last year charged Monday that the company has broken several promises while maintaining dangerously high production speeds.

The employees, working with the labor rights group Arise Chicago, said their activism last year led to wage increases, an end to seven-day-a-week schedules and improvements in working conditions. But they said the company hasn’t followed through on a commitment to close on Sundays to give all workers time with families.

They said in statements provided by Arise Chicago that they are “worked like machines” at El Milagro. Workers themselves were unavailable Monday because they were on the job, said Shelly Ruzicka, communications director at Arise.

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“They are still speeding up the machines, causing pain in our backs and our hands. But the company doesn’t care. We put in all our strength to work hard and keep up until we simply can’t do it anymore,” said a worker Arise identified only as Olga.

The family-run company did not reply to specific allegations, saying last year’s raises were the result of discussions with all employees.

“As part of ongoing operational improvements, our managers continue to receive training, and we are adopting new methodologies and approaches, as well as making capital investments to ensure the success of the company,” El Milagro said. It said it would not respond to “misrepresentation and outright lies” from Arise, which it describes as “outside agitators.”

Ruzicka said raises last year ranged from $1 to $3 per hour for most workers last fall and that everyone got a 36-cent-an-hour increase in December. She said wages remain inconsistent based on job duties and worker tenure.

The workers have pressed their demands independently and have not organized with a union. The company is believed to have about 500 workers. Ruzicka said more than 100 have signed petitions at rallies, but how many actively back the campaign is unknown. “Some people seem scared, or they are happy with the raises and afraid to rock the boat,” she said.

Ruzicka said no job actions are planned. El Milagro has four manufacturing sites in Chicago.

Arise is backed by labor groups and religious organizations.

“These raises are historic for El Milagro. It would have taken five years to earn the raises we won in a few months due to our organizing. We never could have won without being organized and united,” said 18-year El Milagro worker Pedro Manzanares.

But Manzanares said the company offered Sundays off for everyone last fall and has yet to follow through. “I have worked for El Milagro for nearly 20 years, and never had Sundays off. I never had time to spend with my kids who are now grown. I want them to fulfill their promise so that my coworkers with young children can have the time with their kids that I lost,” he said in a statement from Arise.

El Milagro, the workers said, has introduced such improvements as air conditioning in the breakroom and purchasing tools for employees rather than requiring they buy their own.

However, they said the company frequently sends third-shift workers home early, causing them to lose hours in possible violation of the city’s Fair Workweek Ordinance, and refuses to meet with workers to discuss grievances.

In its statement, El Milagro said, “El Milagro will continue to listen and engage in positive and productive conversation with all employees as part of an inclusive, strategic planning process. We will no longer, however, stand by when bullied and attacked by outside agitators. We will continue to do right by our employees, and listen to each voice, not just those who speak the loudest.”

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