Thousands rally for Congress Hotel workers in 6-year battle

CHICAGO — Marking the nation’s longest running strike, thousands of trade unionists, community activists and elected officials marched in a picket line stretching solidly around the Congress Hotel here, June 15, to demonstrate their unwavering solidarity with the 130 strikers until the battle is won.

The strikers, members of Unite Here Local 1, have been on the picket line for six years, through hot summers and bitterly cold winters. They were forced on strike after the owners broke from the downtown hotels’ union wage agreement and imposed a separate wage freeze until 2010.

“We have been in a very long strike, but each day we are getting stronger,” declared striker Guadalupe Perez, a banquet services worker with four children. Perez said she and her family remained committed to the struggle despite her husband losing his job last year.

Anger is widespread and growing toward the hotel owners. Perez told the massive crowd that since January strikers and their supporters had engaged in over 500 actions to confront convention planners, elected officials and city administrators. It cost the hotel $700,000 worth of lost business.

The strike has broad public support. President Barack Obama joined the picket line in 2007 and vowed to be back when he was elected president. Rumors were playfully spread during this week’s protest that Obama would appear since he was in town addressing the American Medical Association convention.

But Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn did join the picket line and said the issue was one of fairness. He told the crowd he would continue to march until justice was done. “When this hotel refused to go along, they left the people of Illinois.”

“The people believe in a hard day’s work for a hard day’s pay,” Quinn said. “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize.”

The City Council is an important pressure point to end the strike because while the hotel won’t pay for wage increases it has spent $40 million on renovations and is seeking the city’s permission to build a swimming pool and health club and add five more floors.

Alderman Bob Fioretti, who was counseled by his attorneys not to make any disparaging remarks about the hotel, silently held up a bumper sticker that read, “The Congress Hotel disgraces Chicago.” He said if the city wants Michigan Avenue, where the hotel is located, to be a gateway for the 2016 Olympics the strike must end.

Alderman Ricardo Munoz announced he had reintroduced “right to know” legislation into the City Council, which would notify customers if a hotel is on strike.

Chicago is “a labor town,” he said. “People have the right to know, if they are checking into a hotel, that they’re not crossing a picket line.”

Symbolizing the hotel management’s strike-breaking efforts, seven huge inflatable rats donated by various unions lined the sidewalk along Michigan Avenue and towered over the picketers.

Frank Greco, a leader of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, said his organization had recently honored the strikers at a commemoration of the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937.

“After six long years you have to admire the commitment of these workers to the union movement,” he said. “The growing solidarity with the other unions and community will eventually win out.”

The Congress Hotel froze workers’ wages at $8.83 an hour. Union housekeepers at other hotels earn $14.60 today. Many on the picket line said fighting for wages that keep pace with inflation is vital to keeping families and communities together.

“Even with two people working at entry level jobs they often can’t pay their rent. We need higher wages,” said Dollie Brewer of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “No dignity, no respect — that’s no good!”

“Companies that pay poor wages are dumping their lack of benefits on our social system,” said Joanne Kantorwitz who marched with a large group from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA). “I’m a devoted union supporter and I think people need to have their wages protected.”

Another member of JCUA, Sam Hamer, just graduated from North Side Prep High School. He successfully led a campaign earlier this spring to move the high school prom from the hotel and was called on stage at the rally to accept thanks.

Strikers and their supporters are determined to see a victory. Henry Bayer, president of AFSCME Council 31, said, “I’m here to show my support for my sisters and brothers of the Congress Hotel. We’ll be here for another six years if we have to bring it to a successful conclusion.”

“We’re going to continue to show solidarity,” the Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, told the World. “We’re letting the owners know we won’t give up and we’re going to get justice whatever it takes.”

Equality Illinois founder Art Johnson said it was never a happy occasion to celebrate the anniversary of a strike. He told the crowd he was there “because the gay and lesbian cause is the same cause as that of workers. The enemies of gay and lesbian equality are the same as the enemies of worker equality.”

“History is on our side. Justice always wins. Stay strong,” he said.

Strikers said they were getting a lot of support from other hotel workers across the city. “The spirit is very uplifting and hopeful,” said Maribel Elias. Fellow striker Rosa Hernandez added, “This protest will encourage the people to fight on. We are working hard to protect all the workers.”

Hotel workers around the city are gearing up for another round of contract negotiations affecting 6,000 workers whose contracts expire in August. Contracts for another 4,000 area hospitality workers also represented by Local 1 are up this year. Andre Johnson, a worker at the Knickerbocker Hotel and member of Unite Here Local 1 told the strikers, “If I still made today what I made in 2002, it would be impossible for me to pay my bills. It should only take one job to make a decent living. I don’t want to be left behind. I won’t leave you behind.”

“We need to continue fighting and be strong,” Dolores Contreras told the World. “And with the help of all the people today I know it will be resolved soon.” With her 14-year old son Alejandro Valdez beside her, Contreras said it was hard to be on strike for so long but her kids looked upon her with a lot of respect.

“They know I’m fighting for a better future,” she said. Alejandro nodded and added, “The owner is a bad man. He should sign a contract so it’s over. But I feel glad because my mother and the others are fighting for what’s right.”

jbachtell @ rednet.org