Directly west of Chicago’s iconic Buckingham Fountain sits the Congress Hotel. Itself an icon during its heyday of the early 20th century, the Congress is now a shabbier shade of its former self. But on June 12, the city’s left-labor bloc livened the place up by appearing, at first blush, to throw a raucous block party outside its doors.
But it wasn’t a celebration. Instead, the hundreds of union workers, college students and members of religious and community groups were marking the fifth anniversary of the strike against the Congress, making it the longest active strike in the United States.
The strike’s roots go back to the mid-’90s, when the Congress’ ownership group pulled out of a multi-employer association that bargained for the majority of Chicago hotels. As a result, it wasn’t part of the landmark September 2002 deal between UNITE HERE! and nearly all of the city’s downtown hotels, that increased benefits and dramatically raised wages. (A 2006 agreement raised them again to $13.90 an hour, 57 percent more than the 2002 wage of $8.83 an hour that Congress pays today.)
Instead, the Congress waited to begin negotiations until days before its contract expired in January 2003. Those negotiations moved slowly until the hotel proposed its final contract in May. The offer not only demanded a 7 percent wage cut and no raises through the contract’s life, it refused to pay increases in health and welfare premiums, essentially eliminating health insurance and pensions. Faced with a proposal that would pay them 26 percent below the city’s newly set industry standard, Congress workers voted almost unanimously to strike on June 15.
“This fight is for all the hotels in Chicago, not just the Congress,” says Leticia Aritzmendi, a mother of six, whose time on the picket line almost matches the six years that she worked at the Congress as a housekeeper. “If we lose this fight, other hotels will pay the same thing.”
The hotel’s management has claimed that because it is independently owned, it can’t afford to match the salaries offered by multinational chains. But UNITE HERE! officials are quick to point out that Congress’ ownership group is headed by Albert Nasser, a member of a wealthy family whose business interests span the globe.
Nasser’s family has a majority stake in Gelmart Industries, which claims to be the world’s largest, privately held manufacturer of women’s undergarments. The company sells these undergarments to retailers such as K‑Mart and Wal-Mart. In 2004, a UNITE HERE! Local 1 delegation visited the company’s factory in the Philippines, where workers described being given “impossibly” high quotas and forced to work for free if they failed to meet them.
Despite the fact that the strike has nearly crippled the Congress’ business – the union estimates that the hotel’s occupancy hovers at 30 percent, far below what most hotels need to stay afloat – the two sides haven’t met in almost a year. And with the owners refusing to budge from their final contract proposal, no future talks are planned.
A telling instance of management’s intransigence occurred a couple weeks before the June 12 rally, when an organizer from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a local progressive advocacy group, attempted to deliver a letter to Shlomo Nahmias, the hotel’s general manager. Signed by seven rabbis, the letter expressed their discontent with the continuing strike. When Nahmias learned of the letter’s origin, he ripped it in half without reading it.
A strong show of defiance, perhaps, but not nearly as impressive as the resolve exhibited daily by former Congress housekeepers Mercedes Ayvar, Imelda Martinez, Ofelia Rubio, Celia Salgado and Maria Sandoval. Each morning at 6 a.m., the five friends arrive at the picket line outside the Congress and march until 7:30 a.m., when they leave for their new jobs at the downtown Sheraton. From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the women clean 16 rooms each, then return to the Congress to picket from 5 p.m. to 8:40 p.m., before catching one of the final buses leaving downtown.
“There’s been a lot of walking,” a smiling Ayvar said at the rally. “I haven’t sat down in five years.”
The twinkle in her eye suggested she wasn’t planning to do so anytime soon.