10-Year Strike at Chicago’s Congress Hotel Ends in Defeat, But Leaves a Legacy

Micah Uetricht May 31, 2013

Picketers in front of the Congress in 2007. (Seth Anderson/Flickr/Creative Commons)

The longest strike in Amer­i­ca end­ed yes­ter­day when the union rep­re­sent­ing work­ers at the Con­gress Hotel in Chica­go tac­it­ly admit­ted defeat at the hands of an own­er whose iron resolve to break the strike seemed stronger than his desire to turn a profit.

Despite the defeat, the 10-year strike leaves a com­pli­cat­ed lega­cy for Chicago’s labor move­ment. Its con­fronta­tion­al tac­tics have res­onat­ed through­out the city and struck fear into the hearts of bosses.

I first encoun­tered the strike unex­pect­ed­ly, and embar­rass­ing­ly, on a day­long trip to Chica­go when I was 17, just before mov­ing there for col­lege. Some friends had booked a room in the cheap­est down­town hotel they could find. I arrived around mid­night, notic­ing signs of an own­er who didn’t feel the need to fix crum­bling plas­ter, but none of a fight between man­age­ment and workers.

When I walked onto Michi­gan Avenue the next morn­ing, to my hor­ror I had to exit through a pick­et line. At the ear­ly morn­ing hour, the strik­ers didn’t seem to have the ener­gy to sub­ject me to the shrill sham­ing that is the fate of most pick­et line crossers. But I did talk at length with one of the work­ers, who explained the strike’s history.

In 2002, in the mid­dle of the post‑9/​11 reces­sion, UNITE HERE Local 1 work­ers from 39 hotels cov­ered by a sin­gle city­wide con­tract threat­ened a strike. The action would have par­a­lyzed Chicago’s hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try. The hotels caved, and the union nego­ti­at­ed a con­tract that includ­ed grad­ual rais­es over four years that near­ly dou­bled wages for the city’s hotel work­ers, even­tu­al­ly bring­ing the stan­dard wage at union hotels to $14.60 per hour for house­keep­ers (today, after rais­es from oth­er con­tracts, it’s $16.40).

But the Con­gress, locat­ed on prime real estate on the down­town Mag­nif­i­cent Mile,” removed itself from that agree­ment. Instead, the Con­gress demand­ed wage cuts and increas­ing con­tri­bu­tions from work­ers to health­care costs. In response, a major­i­ty of the hotel’s 130 work­ers vot­ed to strike in 2003. A decade lat­er, the strike has end­ed, but with­out any tan­gi­ble gains for the workers.

Unions almost always try to spin crush­ing loss­es as par­tial vic­to­ries, but even the union’s pres­i­dent didn’t try to hide a sense of res­ig­na­tion and defeat. It is the right time for the union and the strik­ers to move on,” Local 1 Pres­i­dent Hen­ry Tamarin wrote in a state­ment. There is no more to do there.”

On its face, the strike appears to be a long, cost­ly, abject fail­ure. It became the longest strike in Amer­i­ca years ago, and the work­ers did not win on a sin­gle one of their demands. On a local news show yes­ter­day, Peter And­jelkovich, the hotel’s attor­ney, seemed to linger upon the word uncon­di­tion­al” when describ­ing the terms of the strike’s end, rel­ish­ing the hotel’s vic­to­ry. Asked if wages and ben­e­fits at the hotel have changed, And­jelkovich didn’t hes­i­tate. No. They did not get any concessions.”

This despite the Her­culean efforts the union waged dur­ing the strike. Work­ers and reli­gious lead­ers trav­eled to Gene­va, Switzer­land, attempt­ing to con­front the own­er, Albert Nass­er, at his pri­ma­ry home there. (Nass­er hadn’t been to Chica­go since before the strike.) Union mem­bers led a del­e­ga­tion to the Philip­pines, meet­ing with work­ers at gar­ment fac­to­ries owned by Nass­er. (These and oth­er hold­ings around the world like­ly pro­vid­ed the bulk of Nasser’s wealth for the past decade; tax doc­u­ments indi­cate that the hotel has been bleed­ing mon­ey for years, thanks in part to the union’s efforts.)

The union also fought for years to keep the City Coun­cil from grant­i­ng the hotel a per­mit for a side­walk café and a four-floor expan­sion of the hotel, at one point work­ing with a union-friend­ly city coun­cil mem­ber to block the plans before hotel lawyers suc­cess­ful­ly over­turned the ruling.

Strik­ers were con­stant­ly pick­et­ing in front of the hotel on Michi­gan Avenue, one of the city’s busiest drags. Dur­ing the last half-decade, they were less like­ly to be in front of the hotel and more like­ly to be pay­ing unan­nounced vis­its to com­pa­nies or con­fer­ences that had reserved blocks of rooms at the hotel, telling their sto­ries of hard­ship at the hands of the Con­gress and demand­ing the reser­va­tion be can­celed. These can­cel­la­tions alone may have cost the hotel mil­lions over the years.

When com­pa­nies refused to budge, UNITE HERE would esca­late its tac­tics, often dri­ving their tar­gets insane. I once accom­pa­nied the union to a 5K fun run” for atten­dees of a health­care con­fer­ence whose orga­niz­ers had refused to can­cel their Con­gress reser­va­tions. Strik­ers jogged along­side baf­fled span­dex-clad run­ners, shov­ing fliers in their sweaty hands and explain­ing the impact of the hotel’s intran­si­gence on their fam­i­lies. One old­er orga­niz­er devised a com­pli­cat­ed scheme to make run­ners believe he had laid a tripline across the trail –  – he would pre­tend to pull it taut ahead of them, caus­ing con­fused run­ners to halt in their tracks.

At anoth­er event, attend­ed by some com­pa­ny offi­cials who con­tin­ued doing busi­ness with the hotel on the sec­ond floor of a most­ly glass con­ven­tion cen­ter build­ing, the union raised a small blimp with a mes­sage to atten­dees demand­ing they cut ties to the Congress.

The union quick­ly devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion through­out Chica­go for the con­fronta­tion­al, and often absurd, lengths to which they would go to chal­lenge any­one cross­ing the pick­et line.

And it was that rep­u­ta­tion that made the strike sig­nif­i­cant. Even though the strik­ers won no con­ces­sions for them­selves, the union’s con­fronta­tion­al tac­tics had a chill­ing effect upon Chica­go hoteliers.

For years, union staffers say, oth­er hotels would ref­er­ence the Con­gress dur­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. they would fight the union on com­pen­sa­tion and work­ing con­di­tions, but they would also make clear they didn’t want their guests to receive the kind of treat­ment at the hands of unions expe­ri­enced by those who had refused to can­cel Con­gress reser­va­tions. The strike had a sim­i­lar effect on oth­er hotel work­ers, who saw the strik­ers refus­ing to set­tle for sub­stan­dard wages as a kind of inspi­ra­tion in their own strug­gles with management.

More broad­ly, the strike became a fix­ture in Chica­go, a ver­i­ta­ble land­mark of class strug­gle in the city’s cen­tral dis­trict of con­sumerism and com­merce. Stu­dents from Chica­go and else­where often joined the strik­ers on the pick­et line or on del­e­ga­tions through alter­na­tive break trips or ser­vice learn­ing class­es. The strike became a cause célèbre for every­one from sub­ur­ban peace and jus­tice groups to Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and synagogues.

At a time when strikes in the U.S. are at their low­est lev­els in decades, the Con­gress served as a dai­ly reminder that a fight­ing work­ing-class spir­it had not been total­ly snuffed out in the city.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, that fight­ing spir­it flagged with each pass­ing year. I remem­ber walk­ing past the pick­et line and see­ing strik­ers wear­ing ear­buds. The annu­al sum­mer ral­ly mark­ing the strike’s anniver­sary –  – an annu­al pil­grim­age for labor stal­warts and some Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians (includ­ing then-Sen. Barack Oba­ma in 2007) –  – seemed to dwin­dle in size every year. Like many oth­er Chicagoans, I even­tu­al­ly stopped attend­ing. It was too depressing.

It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine what else the union could have done to win the Con­gress Hotel strike. Faced with a reclu­sive own­er liv­ing halfway around the world who could draw upon much larg­er hold­ings on anoth­er con­ti­nent for his income, who was bent on beat­ing the union even as it drove the hotel into the red, any union would find vic­to­ry difficult.

The Con­gress work­ers did not go down with­out a fight, but yes­ter­day, they did go down –  – and with them, a fix­ture of class strug­gle dis­ap­peared from Chicago’s land­scape. But per­haps the mem­o­ry of that strug­gle, and the fear it inspired among many of the city’s boss­es, will linger long enough for oth­er upstart work­ers to fight and win.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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