Chicago hotel workers are on strike at more than 25 hotels, and the 6,000-strong members of UNITE HERE Local 1 show no signs of backing down.
Since September 7, Chicago’s downtown has been filled with picket lines seemingly every other block. The raucous chanting reverberating down the skyscraper canyons and the “On Strike” signs appealing for solidarity were strong reminders of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, with its massive demonstrations that turned downtown streets into rivers of red.
The strike comes at a particularly crucial moment for Chicago hotels with the International Manufacturing Technology Show — said to be the largest in its 91-year history — coming into town September 10-15. Ten of thousands of people who come to Chicago for the show will struggle to find hotels that don’t have hours-long delays and inadequate service.
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One of the central demands of the strike is for year-round health care for workers with less than five years of seniority who are laid off during the slowdown in business in the winter months.
These workers typically get pink slips in October and are rehired when business picks up again. They lose their health care during these months and struggle to obtain essentials like insulin, high blood pressure medicine and pain medications — which for many are needed because of injuries caused by the repetitive, strenuous nature of hospitality work.
However, even senior workers who have year-round employment and health care are out on the picket line, fighting for their co-workers.
“I reach out for other people at the bottom, because I was at the bottom, and somebody had to reach for me,” said Larry Lewis, a housekeeper of 18 years and a shop steward at the downtown Palmer House Hotel.
After 11 years of working as a room attendant at the Palmer House, Tina Graham, also a Local 1 shop steward, knows the toll it takes on workers’ health. “I had a rotator cuff surgery due to repetitive work,” Graham said. “The hotel didn’t pay for that, so I’m still stuck with that bill today. That was six or seven years ago.”
In addition to improvements in health care, workers also want raises and a lighter workload. “They try to phase people out of the second and third shifts, because the hotel is so greedy,” said Larry Lewis. “They have one or two people doing an eight-person job.”
Hilton Worldwide Holdings, which owns three of hotels where workers are on strike, reported earnings of $840 million last quarter alone. Workers want to know why Hilton can afford exorbitant salaries for executives and managers, but says it can’t afford better wages and basic health care for all workers year-round.
“They’ve given themselves a raise how many times?” Graham said. “And all that money they’re making is from my blood, sweat and tears, and from all of my co-workers. They talk down to you, disrespect you in every way they think they can.”
This is another key issue for strikers: the culture of consistent disrespect from corporate higher-ups across all the hotels.
But the indignities they suffer extend beyond arrogance and exploitation. Workers say they have routinely report racism and sexual harassment from guests, but are offered little to no protection by hotel management.
“This hotel is probably the most racist hotel I’ve ever worked at, the Palmer House,” said Lewis. “When you go and explain these things — how people are treated — these managers, they don’t care. They don’t look at you, they look at the money.”
Fortunately, workers can look to their union to protect them and fight back.
For example, as a shop steward, Graham recently helped organize to win a city ordinance, known as “Hands Off, Pants On,” which seeks to protect hotel workers from sexual assault and harassment by requiring hotels to provide panic buttons to all housekeepers.
In Chicago, 58 percent of hotel workers surveyed say they have been sexually harassed by a guest, and 49 percent of housekeepers say a guest exposed themselves, flashed them or answered the door naked.
“The best thing about it was that we won that for all hotel workers in Chicago, not just those in the union,” said Graham.
Not all guests are tolerating the mistreatment of hospitality workers. At the Drake Hotel, also run by Hilton, a large group of guests in town for a conference arrived to find workers picketing the entrance of the hotel. The guests informed management that they would not be staying, put their bags on the sidewalk and joined the picket line.
At Hotel Allegro, there were two large weddings held over the weekend while strikers picketed were loudly picketing outside. At one point, according to strikers, one of the brides came out and addressed them. She told strikers that their struggle for fair treatment at work and a decent wage was justified, that they were right to strike, and that they should stay out until they win.
This is what we mean by solidarity.
Support for hotel workers has come from the Chicago labor community as well. Strike leaders say that unionized painters, electricians, caterers, sanitation workers and UPS drivers represented by the Teamsters have all refused to cross the picket line.
Members of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Chicago Teachers Union and National Nurses United have come to walk the picket lines with strikers, while individual supporters have brought food, drinks and messages of solidarity.
Lewis reports there is a network of stewards across the hotels that communicates regularly, at times shifting strikers to other picket lines to maintain morale and strength, and build support among all strikers.
Few hotel workers are crossing the picket lines. According to Tina Graham, fewer than 10 of the 600 union members at the Palmer House crossed this weekend.
Management at all the hotels used scabs from the first day of the strike. On the first day, Graham said, the Palmer House “brought in 200 scabs, but 80 of them left because they couldn’t handle the work. The next day, they brought in clients from a drug rehabilitation program and paid them $15 an hour to do our work.”
The companies have so far refused to come to the bargaining table. They are playing hardball. However, striking workers are optimistic that they sent a strong stratement to management this weekend.
“They’re getting the message,” said Bobby McDowell, an employee of 22 years at the Drake. “It’s hitting home. We’ve heard several guests complain about the service, wondering how this could be a five-star hotel. The temp workers they brought in can’t do our job. We’re trained and experienced. We know about hospitality.”
He pointed out the contradiction between how he and his co-workers are actually treated compared to the companies’ buddy-buddy talk:
They say they want us to be team players, that we’re a Drake family. But if we’re a family, why are you treating us like outsiders? You want to work us like dogs. Treat us equal, and give us equal rights and equal pay. You aren’t worried about how you’re going to support your family. You’re not living paycheck to paycheck.
Workers at four other hotels were initially hesitant to picket last Friday, but they have gained confidence from the strike and plan on going out. Tina Graham said the strikers’ belief in themselves and their union is building every day, especially for those who have never been on strike before, as she was in 2011.
Solidarity will be essential for hotel workers to stay strong and win their fight, especially if the walkout continues through the coming week and beyond.
Just as with the “red state” strikes by educators last spring, and for nurses involved in struggles in New England, local and national support was essential for rebuilding workers’ confidence and a sense in the wide labor movement that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Until the companies come to the table prepared to meet the strikers’ demands, workers plan to be out, day and night, claiming the dignity and compensation they deserve. Larry Lewis wants the message to be clear:
We want to make sure they understand — you can’t push us around no more. A change is gonna come. We are just looking for respect. What’s wrong with that?