Thousands of Chicago Workers Are Out On the First Citywide Hotel Strike In Over a Century

Jeff Schuhrke September 11, 2018

Workers at 26 Chicago hotels are now on strike. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In one of the city’s largest work stop­pages in years, thou­sands of union­ized hotel work­ers across down­town Chica­go are on strike to win a new contract. 

Since Sept. 7, over 6,000 house­keep­ers, cooks, door­men, bar­tenders, servers and dish­wash­ers with UNITE HERE Local 1 have been pick­et­ing out­side 26 hotels, includ­ing the Palmer House Hilton, Hyatt Regency and Sher­a­ton Grand. Spir­its are high as strik­ing work­ers and sup­port­ers main­tain loud and ener­getic pick­et lines at all hours of the day.

Con­tracts at 30 down­town hotels — each nego­ti­at­ed sep­a­rate­ly — expired on August 31. The strike was autho­rized two weeks ear­li­er by 97 per­cent of vot­ing union members.

In addi­tion to rais­es, safer work­loads, increased sick days and improved job secu­ri­ty, work­ers are fight­ing to win year-round health insur­ance. Hotel work­ers with low­er senior­i­ty are typ­i­cal­ly laid off dur­ing the win­ter months, when busi­ness gets slow, and lose their health­care until they are rehired in the spring.

Hotels may slow down in the win­ter­time, but I still need my dia­betes med­ica­tion when I’m laid off,” Q. Rivers, a house atten­dant at the Palmer House, says. They work us like dogs when it’s busy and then kick us to the curb in the winter.”

It’s ter­ri­ble. You can’t go see a doc­tor and you have ail­ments from work­ing here, clean­ing 16 rooms a shift,” explains Tina Gra­ham, a house­keep­er at the Palmer House. Required to lift the cor­ners of 100-pound mat­tress­es and push heavy sup­ply carts across car­pet­ed floors in a short amount of time, hotel house­keep­ers suf­fer a 40 per­cent high­er injury rate than oth­er ser­vice sec­tor workers.

UNITE HERE mem­bers in Chica­go pay about $50 or less per month in health insur­ance pre­mi­ums, but exist­ing con­tract lan­guage does not pro­vide for year-round cov­er­age. In Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and New York, UNITE HERE locals run their own non-prof­it health­care clin­ics where mem­bers pay no pre­mi­ums at all.

The strike comes as Chicago’s hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try is boom­ing. Last year, 55 mil­lion tourists vis­it­ed the city, a record high. Mean­while, down­town hotels report­ed $1.45 bil­lion in room rev­enue from Jan­u­ary to July 2018, a 10.4 per­cent increase from the same time peri­od last year.

We’re tired of being stepped on, when these bil­lion-dol­lar cor­po­ra­tions are get­ting all this mon­ey and then they for­get us,” says Lar­ry Lewis, a house­man who has been work­ing at the Palmer House for 18 years. They for­get that we’ve made these places five-star, world-wide-class hotels.”

The last time work­ers at this many city hotels were out on strike in uni­son was all the way back in 1903.
UNITE HERE Local 1 famous­ly led a decade-long strike at the Con­gress Hotel from 2003 to 2013, and also waged a near­ly four-year con­tract cam­paign against the Hyatt — which includ­ed occa­sion­al one-day strikes — that also end­ed in 2013.

More recent­ly, women mem­bers of Local 1 led the charge in get­ting the Chica­go City Coun­cil to pass the ground­break­ing Hands Off Pants On” ordi­nance, a law requir­ing hotels to pro­vide pan­ic but­tons to house­keep­ers so they can alert secu­ri­ty when sex­u­al­ly harassed by guests. The law was passed last Octo­ber and went into effect on July 1 of this year.

But the cur­rent strike is the first time in recent mem­o­ry that work­ers in mul­ti­ple Chica­go hotels have walked off the job at the same time, and it appears to have tak­en man­age­ment by sur­prise.

The hotels where work­ers are on strike are strug­gling to cope, with guests report­ing check-in delays and dirty rooms as man­agers are forced to change bed­sheets. The prob­lems will like­ly be com­pound­ed this week as down­town hotels wel­come over 100,000 vis­i­tors for the Inter­na­tion­al Man­u­fac­tur­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Show at the McCormick Place con­ven­tion center.

Mean­while, strik­ing work­ers are show­ing no signs of fatigue and promise to stay on the pick­et lines until man­age­ment con­cedes to their demands.

Every­body under­stands what’s at stake and we feel that by being togeth­er we can uplift each oth­er, we can empow­er each oth­er to make sure that the com­pa­ny hears our demands and gives us the respect that we deserve,” explains Palmer House bar­tender Roushaun­da Williams.

If I had to be out here 20 years until they get it right, I don’t care,” Lewis insists. If you look around and you see these peo­ple with me, it’s non­stop. They’re going to have get it right or we’ll be out here.” 

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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