March to support HERE workers

CHICAGO – Even with the threat of rain looming, almost 5,000 people, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 1 members, families, and supporters marched through the “Magnificent Mile” shopping and hotel district for better wages, affordable healthcare, and respect from luxury hotels here, Aug. 23.

Despite management’s tough talk about its “financial hardships” since Sept. 11, one hotel cook told the World, “We’ve been underpaid for too long.”

At one of Chicago’s finest hotels room service deliverers make $5.25 an hour. But, one room service deliverer said his hotel charges an additional $3 each delivery for his services and that clients assume this fee is his gratuity, so he gets few tips. Businesses are allowed to pay employees less than minimum wage if they receive tips. He adds, “I work non-stop all day,” with little to show.

Hotel executives are offering a five-cent wage increase per year, but workers say they haven’t “seen a raise in 10 years, and now they want to lock us into a seven-year contract.” Additionally one banquet worker complained that the health care he received was far from adequate. “If you get sick you have to go to the company hospital, but you don’t get sick days,” he said.

Another banquet waiter commented, “I’m willing to strike. From the city we can’t get affordable housing. Our health care is bad and expensive, and in most hotel cities in the country, the same jobs get twice as much, plus free health care.”

Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Association of Community for Reform Now (ACORN), and the Chicago Teachers’ Union, including its president, marched with Local 1 to show their solidarity. An elementary school teacher came to support the cooks at her school who belong to Local 1, saying “They do the most difficult jobs and get no respect, no air-conditioning, little health care, and low wages.”

Union members also complained about their pensions. A second-generation parking attendant whose father just retired from his hotel job said, “They [the hotels] put pennies in. You get $200 a month after 40 years. How can you live on that?”

Marchers came by the busload, spanning half a mile, stopping rush hour traffic, while passing cab drivers showed the most support, continuing honking their horns and cheering on the marchers. Even shoppers cheered the marchers on. One New York law student said while he was watching the march pass, “It’s a simple idea – paying people what they are worth. People should be able to afford that which they produce. It would help everyone, we’d all be better off. Such an old idea, why hasn’t it caught on yet?”

The author can be reached at Bkishner@pww.org