A small picket line turns into a mass outpouring

2810.jpgCHICAGO – 60 workers who have, for five years, been taking turns to march the picket line in front of the Congress Hotel here could not conceal their joy June 11 as thousands of trade union and community activists joined their ranks. The first to arrive took the picket signs from the strikers and told them to rest on chairs they set up near a makeshift podium.

As the weary workers rested they watched wave after wave of trade union and community supporters arriving on foot, by car, by bus and by train fill first the sidewalks in front of the hotel and then the sidewalks of the entire city block on which the structure sits.

They watched as the band from the musician’s union disembarked from its van and as an 18 wheeler from the Teamsters pulled up along Michigan Ave., blowing its horn in support.

They watched and listened as the endless trail of city buses passing added the honking of their horns to the sounds of the musicians and the Teamsters.

Dolores Contreras has been out on that picket line through five cold winters and five blazing hot summers. Wiping away a few tears, she said, “This makes it all worth it. We will do this. We will win this.”

Jose Sanchez, another five year veteran of the longest lasting strike in America, said, “With all this I can go on forever.”

The strike began five years ago when the Congress Hotel cut wages by seven percent to less than $8 an hour, slashed health benefits and hiked mandated employee contributions to the health care plan.

The hotel has refused to talk to the union since last August. Workers inside the hotel say they are getting only $7.50 an hour. The hotel claims it is paying $8. The prevailing wage for similar hotel jobs in Chicago is $13 an hour.

The striking union, Unite Here, says it will continue the fight to boost wages and working conditions to levels it has won at other city hotels and says the strike at the Congress Hotel has benefited other workers all over Chicago.

Mike Ortiz, who was among the thousands marching around the hotel, said that, for him, it was a “coming home” experience.

He had worked 15 years at the hotel before the strike and has since had numerous low paid jobs from which he has been laid off because of company cutbacks. He’s been out of work almost half a year and his unemployment benefits are about to run out. “I have some deep troubles and I get depressed,” he said, “But I had to come out here today to support this strike. This crowd fills my heart up with joy.”

The hotel and some Internet travel sites say the strike has little or no effect on hotel profits or customer service.

A current hotel worker leaving the building after his shift said that for a year now the hotel has rarely been more than one-third full. Most hotel managers consider a 33 percent occupancy rate to be well below what they need to maintain an acceptable profit level.

Many guests at the Congress complain about customer service.

The World found unsanitary and even dangerous conditions at the hotel in June 2007 when it inspected several floors – including no electricity or lighting on the 7th floor which was fully accessible to customers by both elevator and stairs.

Nine months later, on March 15, a hotel guest submitted an entry to the Unite Here Web site which said, “There was no lighting on the 7th floor. It was very scary. There was a crack in the ceiling of our room and mold in the shower.”