Congress Hotel strikers join forces for immigration reform

CHICAGO – He’s been on the picket line for seven years – in bitter cold and snow and during the “dog days” of August and he was at the seventh anniversary rally June 14 outside the Congress Hotel to commemorate the longest hotel strike in American history. It wasn’t the usual day of picket line duty with the handful of strikers who take their turn on the line.

Rene Patino smiled from ear to ear as he surveyed the crowd of hundreds who had come to join him and 60 of the original workers who walked off the job at the Congress Hotel seven years ago.

The strike began on June 15, 2003, when members of Unite Here Local 1 walked out after the hotel decided to freeze wages until 2010, ceased its payment of health care premiums for its workers, and demanded the ability to contract out all bargaining unit work. Patino is one of the active picketers who have been fighting ever since.

The owners of the Congress have refused to offer any wage increases, job security or health care insurance to any worker. Today, the Congress Hotel pays housekeepers $5.77 an hour less than other Chicago hotels – a difference of $11,540 a year. Until 2002, Congress workers had the same wages and benefits as most other downtown hotel workers.

The hotel has claimed the strike has no effect on business or customer service, although the workers most well-known supporter, President Barack Obama, had urged people not to stay at the hotel during the 2008 election night celebrations.

The union says the Congress has lost millions of dollars of business and its Chicago local has collected over 1,200 customer complaints, including poor service and deteriorating conditions like broken elevators, blocked fire exits, peeling paint, crumbling plaster, exposed wiring, dirty and wet linens, insect infestation, rodent poison and rodent droppings.

Noting that the majority of the people who have led the strike are immigrants, the union that represents the Congress workers turned the anniversary rally here into a march and rally for immigrant rights. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a congressional leader of comprehensive immigration reform, was part of the picketline and rally. Many said there are strong links between worker and immigrant rights.

“We face two big struggles,” one for the rights of workers and the other for the rights of immigrants,” said Patino, who worked in the room service department at the hotel before the strike. “These struggles make us stronger every day. We face great obstacles, but we will keep fighting until all workers are treated with respect and we have just immigration laws.”

Henry Tamarin, the local’s president, said, “The Congress strikers continue a powerful American tradition of immigrants, generation after generation, who have come to this country and fought to make jobs in the United States better.”

He said that they “stand as an example of how immigrant workers in the United States are leading the fight to raise standards for low-wage workers in the service industry and beyond.”

Reporters from local television stations asked Tamarin whether the union hasn’t been fighting a losing battle with a company that has been able to whether a seven-year strike. Tamarin connected the long fight waged by the Congress workers to gains made by other workers in the Chicago area “because the Congress strikers have refused to settle for substandard wages. At the time that the strike began, Chicago housekeepers were making just $8.83 an hour, compared to $14.60 an hour today.”

The union says the fight to hold back Congress hotel workers is part of a big business operation that reaches around the world.

Tamarin noted that Albert Nasser, chairman and CEO of Gelmart industries, an apparel manufacturer and importer, is a “key investor” in the Congress Hotel.

Back in 2004 a Unite Here delegation visited the Phillipines to investigate working conditions in Gelmart’s manufacturing network and published a report documenting massive violation of workers’ rights in those facilities.

The union also says that another Chicago hotel, the Blackstone, has connections in the highest corporate circles.

Tamarin noted that J.P Morgan, “the recipient of taxpayer bailout money.” during the current economic crisis, recently lent the Blackstone $26,000,000. Workers at the Blackstone have been facing an anti-union campaign while trying to settle their first contract.

One hundred Congress picketers left during the rally and marched two blocks south to the Blackstone to show support for workers there. The Blackstone, according to the union, has fired workers who are visible union supporters, threatened to increase workloads and has refused to offer healthcare benefits.

Unite Here has filed a complaint against that hotel with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices, including retaliation against workers for union involvement.

Photos: Blake Deppe/PW

Videos: John Bachtell/WES and Scott Marshall/PW


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.