Just a few days after tortilla employees declared a partial victory over El Milagro after months of resistance against an abusive workplace culture, workers from a tortilla chip factory, El Ranchero on the Southwest Side, also held a protest outside their headquarters with similar demands.
In early March, seventeen current and former employees of the parent company, Authentico Foods, which also owns La Guadalupana, a mass producer of tamales, began meeting in a church during their off time to learn about their rights. The employees reported grievances about the working conditions in three plants—at 4457 S. Kildare Ave., 4545 S. Tripp Ave., and 4647 S. Archer Ave.—that included verbal and physical abuse, no raises or regular breaks, and retaliation for speaking up, all in violation of Illinois law.
Sandra Fernández, a quality control worker who lives in La Villita, was one of three employees who were fired for ambiguous reasons shortly after getting in touch with labor rights organization Arise Chicago. She said workers reached out to their supervisors multiple times this year, and in March attempted to deliver letters and petitions to management but were ignored.
In a statement from Alejandro Castro, president and CEO of Authentico Foods, he said, “We don’t comment on employee concerns. We have an open-door policy through which our employees are welcome and encouraged to discuss and resolve their concerns with management.”
But South Side Weekly obtained videos that showed workers still wearing hairnets outside the Tripp Ave. location and knocking the door without being let inside on at least two separate occasions. They dropped the letters through the mail slot.
In a press conference on April 14, workers denounced unjust firings, abusive managers and grueling working conditions. Fárnandez added, “Repeatedly I sat down with Mr. Alejandro Castro and let him know. I have emails, I’m not talking just to talk. I have the evidence in hand, and when he wants—he says he is going to meet with us—whenever he wants I can show it to him.”
Fernández said she was fired on March 19 toward the end of her shift without notice or justification, and her co-workers were fired in similar fashion, which she believes has been discouraging those who were already on the fence about speaking up.
César Hernández, a nine-year employee who was also fired, had been selected by his peers as the workplace spokesperson when speaking to management. “Then on a Saturday, my day off, I got a call from my supervisor. He told me I was ‘no longer needed’ at the company. I asked why and he couldn’t tell me. I asked whose decision it was. He said he couldn’t tell me.”
Through collective pressure, workers have been able to win verbal commitments from the company, such as one-dollar raises across the board, plus twenty-five cents extra for workers with seniority, and training for managers. But as of the press conference, terminated workers had not been offered their jobs back.
The company later said they would reconsider reinstating the workers who were fired, Fernández told the Weekly. According to Laura Garza, the worker center director of Arise Chicago, “They said that they are going to fix the problems with the breaks [and] the lunch breaks, they are going to make sure that the workers take their lunch break before the fifth hour of work, as required by state law… about paid sick days, they are going to review their policy and stop requiring medical proof or prescriptions before the third day of absence.”
El Ranchero workers acknowledged they were inspired by El Milagro’s organizing, which resulted in over $1.3 million in collective wage increases, ending an illegal seven-day work week and unlawful requirements for paid sick time, anti-sexual harassment training for managers, and air conditioning in lunch rooms.
La Guadalupana and El Ranchero are staple manufacturers of Mexican food products in Chicago. They each gained their brand recognition by operating in Little Village for generations, before merging under the name Authentico Foods and expanding in the Southwest Side.
Jacqueline Serrato is the Weekly’s editor-in-chief. She last wrote a Q&A about growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes.