Hyatt Ultimatum in Chicago: Healthcare or Boycott?

Kari Lydersen

Workers at four Hyatt hotels in Chicago, who went on a week-long strike in September, now face the prospect of losing their healthcare insurance.

Workers at four Hyatt Hotels in Chicago, and at Hyatts nationwide, have for the past few years been working with constant insecurity that their jobs may be farmed out to subcontractors who would work cheap and not belong to unions. Subcontracting is one of the major sticking points in negotiations that have dragged on since UNITE-HERE’s contract with the hotel chain expired in August 2009.

Now Hyatt workers in Chicago have an even more pressing fear — that in a few months they will lose their health insurance. This week, Hyatt representatives threatened to revoke all health benefits effective December 31, unless the union calls off a boycott in effect since summer 2010, according to UNITE-HERE Local 1 spokesperson Annemarie Strassel. Tuesday evening, after UNITE-HERE had sent out a press release about a Wednesday morning press conference, the company agreed to extend health benefits another two months.

But that is little consolation for workers like Gabriel Carrasquillo, a server at the Park Hyatt who is HIV positive. Strassel told In These Times: I would still stay we have hit a crisis point in negotiations. A lot of members have families and are suffering from chronic illnesses. Those concerns aren’t going to go away at the end of February. We’re really looking for a commitment from the company to not use health care as a bargaining tool.”

Carrasquillo and other workers have said they won’t be able to afford crucial care and medications without health insurance, yet if they agree to give up their demands for job security, they fear losing their jobs and hence their healthcare in the near future. In a statement he plans to deliver at the press conference, he said:

In the past month I have visited my doctor multiple times with major health problems. I have also visited the emergency room three times within this period. Dealing with all these health issues has taken an immense toll on my emotional health. Learning that I might not have health insurance has complicated an already difficult situation. Now I not only have to worry about what might be going on with my health. I now have to worry about losing access to medical care and essential medications. The increased stress is making my health issues worse. How am I going to continue to receive the necessary healthcare at the point in my life that I need it the most? Hyatt, are you so callous that you are willing to trade my health for a broader profit margin?

Along with safeguards against the subcontracting out of union jobs, UNITE-HERE is demanding protections for Hyatt housekeepers who, according to one study in the Journal of Industrial Medicine, suffer higher injury rates than those at other hotels. The union says that’s because of the number of rooms they have to clean – up to 30 a day – and the increased workload per room since hotels have put a premium on luxury bedding in the past decade.

An article on the union’s Hotel Workers Rising website says: Over time, cleaning hotel rooms can lead to debilitating injuries that in some instances require surgical intervention, physical therapy, or lead to permanent disability, like the loss of the full use of one’s arm. Lifting mattresses that can weigh over 100 pounds, pushing heavy carts across carpeted hallways, bending up and down to clean floors and make beds, and climbing to clean high surfaces all take a physical toll.”

UNITE-HERE has signed contracts with two of the nation’s other major hotel chains, Starwood and Hilton, which contain protections against subcontracting out jobs and over-working housecleaners. Hyatt officials have pointed out that they are willing to match these chains on wages and benefits. Strassel told In These Times the union is satisfied with those aspects of the Hyatt negotiations, but the union will not sign a contract that doesn’t address subcontracting and health protections for housekeepers. In Boston in 2009, Hyatt fired about 100 workers at three non-union hotels and replaced them with temporary workers making minimum wage. UNITE-HERE Locals 1 and 450 represent 1,500 workers at the four Chicago Hyatts.

In summer 2010 the union called for a boycott of three Chicago Hyatts, and this September after a week-long strike, they extended the boycott to the McCormick Place convention center Hyatt. The Chicago situation is part of a national struggle between UNITE-HERE and Hyatt, including boycotts at 13 other Hyatts around the country. The union says more than $20 million worth of group bookings have pulled out of the hotels because of the boycott and several short-term strikes. Last summer heat lamps were turned on picketing Hyatt workers at the Park Hyatt Chicago hotel on a brutally hot day, in what hotel management claimed was an accident and union leaders think was subterfuge. Yesterday Josh Eidelson blogged for In These Times about two California Hyatt housecleaners fired in what they saw as retaliation for taking down pictures of their heads pasted on bikini-clad bodies – something higher-ups apparently saw as a joke during Housekeeping Appreciation Week.

While the Hyatt workers have been without a contract for two years, employers typically extend the terms of previous contracts during such periods. Strassel told In These Times she doesn’t know of any other employer in Chicago that has cut off health benefits during negotiations. Cristian Toro, a banquet server at the Hyatt McCormick Place for eight years, has a son scheduled for ear surgery this month. Without health insurance, he doesn’t know what the future holds.

A UNITE-HERE press release quotes him: Now Hyatt is asking me to decide between my son’s health and a future where I could lose my job.” The press release also quotes Dr. Quentin Young, a prominent universal healthcare advocate who was a personal physician to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: It’s obscene to use the right to healthcare as a bargaining point.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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