Workers at the two El Milagro tortilla plants in Chicago celebrated a major victory earlier this week with an announcement that since they began organizing last summer, they have received pay increases, better hours, and improved working conditions.
About 100 workers worked with labor advocates who applied pressure on the company. While those advocates say that a total of $1.3 million in raises is a testament to their efforts, the company contends the raises went into effect six months ago, and not because of any worker activity.
Alfredo Benedetti, who has for the past four year has worked at El Milagro’s plant at 31st Street and Western Avenue in Little Village, acknowledges the raises did start last summer. But Benedetti also says they only came because El Milagro’s management faced earlier pressure from organizers.
“At the 36th Street plant [in Brighton Park], after workers mobilized, raises were offered in August 2021,” Benedetti says through an interpreter. “They rolled out increases as the year rolled on, one to two dollars. There was a 36-cent increase in December. They’re slowly improving wages, but I feel it’s to get ahead of organizing efforts. It makes people feel happy about compensation, though other issues remain unresolved.”
Shelly Ruzicka, a spokesperson for Arise Chicago, the pro-labor group that has been helping the El Milagro workers organize, told the Tribune that last summer most workers were earning $15 to $17 per hour. Now most earn between $17 and $20 per hour, with new workers starting at $16.50.
In a 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.”
Earlier this week, a company statement claimed management had been working since early 2021 to review wages and benefits, and the wage increases had nothing to do with Arise or other outside sources.
These characterizations have led workers like Benedetti to issue further clarifications to the media surrounding issues like how El Milagro sped up machines. Benedetti says that sometimes, for the sake of morale, management would slow down production lines if workers complained, but at least at the 31st Street plant, the speed ebbed and flowed. But in general, El Milagro would never reduce the number of production lines to accommodate fewer workers. Instead, workers says the company maintained the same number of lines and even sped them up.
But Benedetti has seen progress. Previously, in order to be paid for one or two consecutive sick days, workers had to provide a doctor’s note or a receipt for medicine, which was difficult during the height of COVID-19 when doctors’ offices and hospitals were overwhelmed. Employer demands also often made it hard for workers to take days off for medical needs. Benedetti says that if he lost a receipt, he would be denied sick pay. Now he says receipts are only required for three days or more. Benedetti says there has also been movement on the subjects of uniforms and parking.
Organizers are still pushing for Sunday off days, and El Milagro still has not fulfilled its promise to give every employee at least one weekend day off. And despite a series of letters, the most recent of which was delivered on March 16, the management still refuses to meet with the worker committee.
“We want to have meaningful conversations about the way things are being done at El Milagro,” Benedetti says. “That hasn’t happened.”