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Susana Dominguez‘s husband always asks her why she keeps it up. After seven years — often called the country’s longest running strike — she and other UNITE HERE Local 1 union workers at Chicago’s Congress Plaza Hotel still picket everyday outside the luxury hotel on Michigan Avenue.
And every day, guests push briskly past them, eyes averted, to enter the hotel, as cab drivers, truckers and bike messengers honk or wave a fist in solidarity and security guards and bell hops go about their jobs giving the strikers occasional nods or quick words of encouragement.
Sometimes, especially when crowds of supporters show up, the police are called. As Senator, Obama joined the picket line — he promised to do so again as president.
Now and then a guest decides to turn away upon seeing the strikers, but most of them who talk at all say they have already paid for their room.
“It seems to me that people don’t care, if they can save a dollar, because they’re not in our shoes,” said Ruben Sanchez, 55, who’d worked at the Congress for 22 years and has since gotten work at another hotel but still comes back to picket.
On Monday June 14 from 4-6pm, the Congress hotel strikers will celebrate their seventh anniversary on the street, with supporters joining them for a large picket and speakers – all staying on the move to avoid violating laws about blocking sidewalks.
The union says they have significantly affected the hotel, which now rarely hosts conferences or parties like it used to. The union says three major conferences decided not to go there in recent months, and $700,000 in business has been diverted by the strike. They also credit the strike with better contracts won in the hotel industry as a whole, since “they’re afraid of a strike like this,” in Sanchez‘s words.
The Congress Hotel situation is an odd one in many ways. It is not owned by one of the country’s major hotel chains but rather “a reclusive family scattered across three continents” in the words of the union’s strike website, earning fortunes from multi-national enterprises including a women’s undergarments manufacturing network with operations in the Philippines, Guatemala, India and other countries. UNITE HERE investigated their Filipino suppliers for abusive labor practices, and activists have visited other international factories in solidarity with the Congress strikers.
(The strike website details the financial background of the family that owns the hotel here. )
The strike website features photos of allegedly unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the hotel and a multitude of customer complaints. The site sums up the situation thus:
When Chicago opened its doors to the world for the 1893 World’s Exposition, the Congress Hotel was built to welcome throngs of visiting tourists. Today, the Congress Hotel disgraces Chicago. It fell into a state of shameful disrepair. The Congress’ neglect of its physical condition was matched only by its stubborn disregard for industry labor standards and a sense of basic fairness. Poor conditions and labor strife have cost the hotel millions of dollars worth of business and the region millions in tax revenue.
Though the workers said they are looking forward to the anniversary picket, they wish people would walk with them more often on regular days. They said they are joined by students, other union members and various supporters from time to time, but they feel like support including from their own union has dropped off over the years.
The strike started after management proposed to freeze already low pay and slash benefits. Today the union says the housekeepers working in the Congress earn only $8.83 an hour, compared to $14.60 on average citywide.
Sanchez noted that the Congress is now staffed with “temporary” workers with no pension or benefits. That’s not near enough to support a family, he notes. But he said passersby seem to have no idea of the situation and often make nasty comments, telling him to get a job or go back to his country.
“This is my country,” he said. “I have a son in the army fighting for your ass.”
He adds that management claimed that the hotel didn’t have the funds to meet the union’s demands, but now they are spending money to remodel. “They’re so rich, they probably just have this place to launder their money,” he said. “If they can get away with it, other hotels will think they can too. That’s why we have to be out here, even if it takes us away from our families.”
Dominguez now works for a catering company that sets up banquets at various hotels. She makes $14.75 an hour there, usually working full days then coming to the Congress to picket for a few hours in the evening, getting home after 9pm, only to return to work by 6am – leaving her little time for family including a 20-year-old son and daughters age 17 and 7.
“Why do you come here for seven years to picket, they’ll never sign the contract,” she says her husband tells her. “Well, that’s why I come!”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.