Workers win concessions from Chicago hotels

CHICAGO – Not until well after Labor Day did Chicago hotel employees know whether they would work or strike.

Word finally came on Sept. 4, a full four days after the expiration of their contract, that the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Locals 1 and 450 had won major concessions from the hotel industry, allowing them to take a step back from the picket line.

Unlike their union brothers and sisters in Toronto and Hawaii, who still face strike deadlines, Chicago hotel workers can now breathe easy, but it hasn’t been easy getting to this point.

Local 1 and 450 members found out that it would take mass organizing of grassroots support, political negotiations, and the will to make a sustained economically devastating strike a real possibility.

According to Illinois Gov. George Ryan, “A strike would have cost the city of Chicago $300,000 a day. We [the state] just came off a tough budget session in Springfield. A strike could have caused us to go back into session for more cuts.”

Illinois has recently suffered severe revenue shortfalls; a strike would be disastrous to Chicago and the state in an already economic worrisome year.

The hotels’ “final offer,” which came two days before the strike deadline, was rejected by the 65-member rank-and-file union negotiating committee. Ryan confined both sides to his downtown office, until hotel negotiators increased their so-called final offer by 15 percent.

The resulting agreement includes language on job security, wage increases of up to 37 percent and a reduction in the payments for family health care to $30 dollars a month. The union also won 15-minute paid breaks, bereavement leave, sick days and jury duty pay.

The Chicago locals were fighting for large wage increases. “Our members deserve a decent standard of living. Hotel workers in New York make on average of 106 percent more money for the same positions as their Chicago counterparts,” said Lars Negstad, a union spokesman.

Hotel executives claim that workers in cities like New York deserve more money because the cost of living in such cities is higher than Chicago. However, a recent study said that in fact the cost of living for working class families in New York is only 11 percent higher than Chicago.

The hotels also claimed that occupancy rates have not rebounded. However, occupancy rates are within 8 percent of last year’s record shattering totals, leaving the hotels very profitable.

Several small hotels came to terms with the union while the larger chains were sticking to the line that they could not afford to give their workers a decent wage.

In the past, the local’s leadership has been accused of corruption, but after electing new leadership and increasing membership involvement, the local has made a new start. The international and local union came together to overcome its past, promising a combined $200-a-week in strike benefits and collecting over seven tons of food and supplies for the membership.

The local also had to combat anti-union tactics, including management’s plans to hire temporary workers, the intimidation of workers, including negotiating committee member Rachel Chambers, and attempts by the hotels to break up union meetings using the threat of police involvement.

The author can be reached at brandikishner@yahoo.com