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Working In These Times

Friday, Jun 17, 2011, 1:16 pm

Record Eight-Year Congress Strike Strengthens Chicago Hotel Workers Union

BY David Moberg

Members of Unite Here Local 1 protest June 6 outside the Congress Plaza Hotel in downtown Chicago.   (Photo by Taylor Long)

On June 15, 2003, Leticia Arismindi, a housekeeper who had then worked for six years at the Congress Plaza Hotel in downtown Chicago, joined 130 fellow workers in a strike. They hoped to force the wealthy Swiss-based owner of the hotel to give them the same contract as the union had just negotiated at other union hotels in the city.  Eight years later, she and many of the 50-plus workers still active in the strike joined with a couple hundred labor union and community members. 

Five hours a day, five days a week for all those years, the diminutive, but determined Arismindi has been on the picket line in what has become the longest hotel strike in U.S. history.  Only a few fabled strikes—a nine-year battle starting in 1954 at Kohler Company in Wisconsin and 14-year strike beginning in 1991 against Diamond Walnut in California—have lasted longer.

Although the union’s boycott campaign has deeply cut occupancy of the hotel’s rooms, Arismindi still confronts hotel visitors who are unaware of the strike, occasionally stopping some from checking in. “We’re here for our benefits and for justice,” she says.

The Congress has not increased pay for housekeepers in eight years, stopped paying health insurance premiums, and began contracting out most of the work. (The hotel did increase pension plan contributions, since the penalties if it failed to do so would have been even greater.)

During that time, UNITE HERE Local 1 has negotiated one new contract in 2006 plus, with the exception of hometown Hyatt, another new contract with all other unionized hotels.  Both contracts avoided concessions and won higher wages—$15.10 an hour for housekeepers—as well as stronger work rules, health coverage and other protections. 

“We have been successful even in the downturn and got good settlements,” says Local 1 president Henry Tamarin. “That’s an unusual story. All of it is a result of organizing our members and their willingness to engage in struggle.”

The Congress fight has played a critical role, both in engaging and inspiring other hotel workers and in sending a message to management about how doggedly the union is willing to fight.  Despite the demands on staff time and money, and the strategic complexity, Tamarin thinks it’s important to stick with the strike until there’s a reasonable settlement.

It’s still possible owner Albert Nasser will settle or sell to someone who will, but so far management’s proposal, Tamarin says, “is and has been consistent: They have not offered a penny more, literally,” except for increased pension payments under duress. Although there have been no negotiations since a ritualized encounter last August, the union and management will meet for talks in July.

“The strikers don’t regret having gone out on strike,” Tamarin says. “They regret not having won yet. I remind them it’s their strike, and they can end it, but they don’t.”  Tamarin says the union owes members willing to fight the support they need, but in addition the strike has “had a lasting impact on our ability to rebuild the local, and our willingness to engage in the fight has sent a message to other owners.”

Claudio Gonzales, who works as a waiter farther south of the Congress Hotel at a Hilton on Michigan Avenue, came to the eighth anniversary rally and picketline in part out of gratitude. “Without this struggle maybe we in the Hilton would have been on the outside more,” he says. “When my boss sees this, he decides he doesn’t want it and decides to settle.”

With the support she gets from other hotel union members, the broader labor and progressive community, and her husband and six children, Leticia Arismindi gains inspiration to keep up the struggle. As she explains, “My kids say, ‘Mom, keep going. You’ve given eight years. You’ve got to stay till the end.’”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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