Workers take on Chicago hotels

CHICAGO – Over 7,000 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 1 are preparing for a possible Sept. 1 strike against some of the nation’s premier hotels here as tough contract negotiations continue.

Local 1 is trying to bring Chicago hotel workers’ pay up to the standard set in other major cities. Union hotel workers in cities like New York earn considerably more. The hourly pay of a room attendant in Chicago averages $8.83; the average is $18.15 in New York and $12.03 in Boston. Furthermore employees in other major cities including New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles also receive medical insurance for themselves and their families, while Chicagoans are forced to pay $85 a month for health coverage.

Hotel executives at luxurious Chicago hotels like the Hyatt Regency, Hilton, Ritz-Carlton and Drake claim that since Sept. 11 there is no money to raise employees’ pay in Chicago, the nation’s most profitable hotel market. But the union says hotel business here is the best in the country.

The union’s slogan for the current negotiations and possible strike is “I love NY pay,” which employees display proudly on buttons. However, strike preparation is more than talk. Local 1 and national HERE are building substantial political support and have won support from the leading gubernatorial candidate Rod Blagojevich and other local officials.

The union has launched a media blitz to educate the public and reporters about the importance of their aims. Local 1 has already collected over 7 tons of food for striker food baskets. National HERE and the local union have pledged to provide $200 a week strike pay.

If this is not enough to show hotel executives that Chicago’s employees mean business, Local 1 members will march through the center of the city’s hotel district on Aug. 23.

As union members were busy making banners for the coming march, Rachel Chambers, a member of the negotiating committee, told the World management has resorted to intimidation tactics. Since negotiations started, she has been scheduled for a shift till 11:30 p.m. and another shift at 6:30 the next morning, despite the fact that she has an hour and a half commute by public transportation. “I think it is retaliation,” she said. “They are trying to break the strike.” She noted that hotel management gets free parking and consistent schedules while workers have to pay over $30 a day for parking.

“They demand so much from us,” Chambers said, but when it comes time to negotiate “they give us nothing.” After pay raises, family health coverage is the union’s next priority. “I can’t afford to pay the medical bills for my husband’s ulcer medication,” said Chambers. Chambers started as a hotel housekeeper and said she believes the housekeeping staff is the most unnoticed but the most essential to hotel business. “I’m not getting paid to do union work,” she said, “but I’m going to stand up.”

Lars Nesdad, Local 1 communications director, declared, “We are doing everything we can to prepare in the event of a strike. We have a lot of community support.”

Fitzpatricks Hotel workers recalled a speech by management saying that staff and managers were “one family.” Employees wondered where that family is now.

As white, Black and Hispanic workers painted banners reading “We can do it” and “Si se puede,” they seemed to have found a family in the union, all working toward the same goal, a fair contract.

The author can be reached at brandikishner@yahoo.com