Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is the city’s biggest symbol of privilege and power. Heading south on Michigan Avenue, it passes by high-end fashion boutiques, fine restaurants, and towering skyscrapers. A few blocks past Millenium Park, however, one encounters a fixture that may seem out of place amid the avenue’s opulence: picketing workers at the Congress (Plaza) Hotel, who saw the sixth anniversary of the longest strike in the United States on June 14.
Their story begins in 2002 when members of the restaurant, gaming, and hotel union UNITE HERE Local 1—around 7,000 workers—faced contract negotiations with the Hotel Employees Labor Relations Association (HELRA). The union’s members, tired of an hourly wage of less than $9 per hour and almost nonexistent benefits, were ready to play hardball. But the hotels would not yield to worker demands. After coming within a breath of a strike that would have paralyzed the city’s hotel industry—requiring former Governor George Ryan to call an emergency negotiating session—workers and employers settled on an increase in benefits and wages of 57 percent over the next 4 years. Clearly, the union had won.
One year later, Local 1 members at the Congress Hotel sat down for similar negotiations. Their hotel had pulled out of HELRA years earlier, leaving their workers without the pay increases other hotel laborers had won the year previous. Expecting a boost in their $8.83 hourly pay similar to HELRA laborers, Congress Hotel employees were shocked to hear management’s "final offer" was a 7 percent pay decrease and near-elimination of benefits and pensions. Unwilling to accept such a proposal, particularly at a time when a hotel workers tide was rising citywide, Congress workers voted 114-1 to strike.
Guadalupe Perez, a striker and former banquet waitress, "didn’t think we’d be out for much time; a few days, a week." Six years later, the hotel has not approached the strikers with a decent offer, so they continue the daily picket line in front of the hotel.
2008 demonstration/picket at Chicago’s Congress Hotel—photo by Samuel A. Love
Jessica Lawlor is boycott coordinator and a research analyst for UNITE HERE. She says the union wants to settle the dispute, but "the owners haven’t offered a cent over the 2002 wages during the entire strike," she explained. "We’re not going to settle for such low pay when no other hotel workers in the city are making so little."
The hotel’s owner, Albert Nasser, is a textile mogul and billionaire who lives in New York City and Geneva, Switzerland. Nasser refuses to budge on the dispute and his representatives have maintained that the resources are not there to pay its workers the industry standard, now over $14 an hour in Chicago with benefits. But, as strikers and union staff point out, in 2008, the hotel applied for building permits to construct a sidewalk café and a rooftop pool, the latter carrying a $2.5 million price tag. "How can he say he doesn’t have the money to pay us when we see that he’s renovating the hotel?" Perez demanded. "He wants to make an investment of over $2 million, but he can’t pay us a fair wage?"
Citing such hypocrisy, Local 1 convinced the city to deny the hotel’s requests. For three months in the beginning of 2009, strikers organized "flying squads" that fanned throughout the city—confronting Chicago businesses and organizations who continued to patronize the hotel in their own offices—unwilling to accept "I’m sorry, but…" for an answer. Through their ongoing efforts, the strikers have cost the hotel millions by convincing individuals and groups to cancel reservations. Lawler cites the example of the Housewares Association, who recently nixed a three-year contract worth $450,000 after facing union pressure.
Recently, the union won the support of almost every city council member, a number of state congressional representatives, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and has even seen two picket line visits by then-Senator Obama, who pledged to return as president. As support mounts from those in power—and the strikers remain as tenacious as ever—it’s hard to see anything but victory in the workers’ future.
On a hot Wednesday evening in May, strikers were walking the line when a number of shiny sport utility vehicles pulled up to the hotel’s entrance. Dressed in business attire, attendees of the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention—owners and operators, many of whom had no doubt butted heads with UNITE HERE in their own restaurants in the past—prepared to cross the picket line. One attendee unloaded his luggage, pushed up against the car to avoid the workers and their signs, and scoffed, "You should be grateful you even have a job. Other people aren’t so lucky."
"Shame on you," multiple strikers yelled as the man skulked through the hotel’s automatic doors without looking back.
Perez explained her feelings on the man’s words. "He’s not working in a hotel for minimum wage," she said. "He has enough money to stay here. He does not suffer like we do." Cornelio Rosado, a former banquet worker at the hotel, agrees. "He’s not asking why we’re on strike. He’s not going to come work here and survive on the wages the Congress pays."
Rosado and Perez, like most other strikers, both work a full-time job in addition to putting 25 hours a week into the strike. The hours take a heavy toll. "I am a mother of four children," Perez explained. "I have to divide my time between my home, my other job, and coming to the Congress to walk the line."
Rosado faces similar difficulties. "It’s very hard. I have a family and kids. Sometimes I disappoint them because I come to the strike. But we need to show people that you have to fight for your rights."
Perez insists the workers will win their struggle. "This hotel committed many abuses, but they are small and independent. If they win, the big corporate hotels will abuse their workers even more."
She turned and pointed toward her former employer’s towering frame behind her. "We’re not going to lose six years of our lives. We will be out here for another year and another year and another year and will persist until we win."