CHICAGO – “This is an embarrassing day for the city of Chicago,” declared Guadalupe Perez a striking Congress Hotel worker at an Oct. 26 action honoring the strike. “This is now the longest hotel strike in US history. For over 6 years the Congress has brought this city down. But we’ll be here for as long as it takes to get justice.”
The Congress Hotel strike officially surpassed the Frontier Hotel strike in Las Vegas that lasted 6 years, 4 months and 10 days and ended Feb. 1, 1998. Workers went on strike after the Congress unilaterally broke with the master agreement between the union and city hotels and imposed a lower wage scale.
“The torch has been passed from one group of heroic workers in our union to another group of heroes,” declared John Wilhelm, Unite Here international president, the union representing the Congress strikers.
Veteran union members of the Frontier strike brought solidarity greetings and praised the strikers for their courage. Joe Daugherty, now president of Unite Here Local 24 in Detroit, told the Congress strikers, “while it’s a long time it’s a short time in the fight for justice.”
“You never know when you will make history,” said Gloria Hernandez of Unite Here Local 165 in Las Vegas. “They know they can’t defeat us when we’re together. This is the only way they’ll respect us. You’re fighting for the future of Chicago and the next generation.”
As strikers, hotel workers and their supporters marked the occasion, others prepared to take a strike vote in response to demands for concessions by big hotel corporations.
Under light rain, hotel workers and their supporters took the “tour of crummy employers” down Michigan Avenue past the Hilton, Blackstone and ended at the Congress Hotel. Union contracts covering over 6000 workers at 30 downtown hotels expired on August 31. Three major hotel corporations employ most: Hyatt, Hilton and Starwood. Workers at five hotels are taking strike votes.
Hitting hard at the greed of hotel owners, Unite Here Local 1 President Henry Tamarin said, “We’re not going to settle for standing still, we won’t move back either. We’re only moving forward.”
“Malos, mucho malos, (bad ones, very bad ones)” cried the crowd in reference to the greedy hotels.
The Hilton Hotel is one of the big chains driving wage-and-benefit concessions. They are using the economic crisis to cut jobs and demand concessions in health care benefits and impose speed up. But when economic times were better they were just as stingy.
“The Hilton is not making this any easier,” said Eddie Simms, a worker at the Hilton Hotel. “Each day I feel like fighting somebody. I know what I have to do and each of us has to fight and not give up.”
Like the Boston Hyatt Hotel, the Hilton wants to subcontract out parts of their operation to lower paid workers. But shop steward Sherry Stevenson said workers are fighting any subcontracting along with the proposal for a five-year contract with no raise for the first 2 years.
The workers led by Unite Here have fought hard to raise wages and benefits in the hospitality industry in Chicago. Average housekeeper wages have risen from $8.83 an hour in 2002 to $14.60 today.
What galls the workers is the hotels are making profits even in the economic downturn. In the last three months, hotel company stocks have soared 20-30%. On Oct. 22, Starwood (which operates some of the hotels taking the strike vote) announced profits of $180 million for the first three quarters of 2009. Evidently, these profits are not big enough for greedy hotel owners, say the workers.
The protesters moved on to the Blackstone Hotel, a landmark that had been closed but was refurbished and re-opened with $47 million of taxpayer money. The hotel showed its gratitude by resisting a union organizing drive and after the union won by refusing to settle on a contract.
The Blackstone fired Renee Walker for her strong union support. “They ‘laid off’12 workers from the Room Service Department,” Walker told the People’s World. “We were the strongest union supporters. They said it was because the economy was bad. Then they had a job fair to hire our replacements and none of us were considered. We were essentially fired.”
Walker and her co-workers have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) against the Blackstone to regain their jobs. “We’re going to continue to fight,” said Walker.
Imelda Martinez embodies the connection between the Congress strike and the fight at the other hotels. Martinez has been on strike at the Congress Hotel and now works at the Sheraton Hotel as a housekeeper, where a strike vote is being taken.
“Right now, two hotels are trying to cut my benefits and my rights. Today more than ever we have to fight. We’ll continue fighting in the path of Cesar Chavez and for wage and benefit justice. I am not afraid.”