Tina Graham has worked for Chicago hotels for 11 years, and in the beginning, she faced a predicament every winter: As the tourism industry’s slow season approached she lost her health insurance, even as she dealt with the wear and tear that such physical work takes on her body. “When you’re working, you’re moving all of your body, your hands, your feet, your legs, your arms, and they get tired,” she told Truthout. “It’s really hard.”
Graham has had to have work done on her rotator cuff due to the repetitive nature of her tasks. She takes arthritis pills every morning and wears a medicated patch on her back throughout the day. “You don’t rest from the time you get there to the time you leave,” she said. “You’re on the move, pushing a big cart with your linens on it, chemicals on it, your vacuum on it, going from room to room.”
But without health insurance during the slow season, “I didn’t go to the doctor,” she said. “If something was wrong I just had to deal with it myself.”
Graham is now one of thousands of hotel workers who have been on strike across the city since September 7, in the first such action in over 100 years. The strike, which is now in its 14th day, started with employees of 25 hotels, and since it began workers from another hotel have joined. Employees walked off the job at 5 am on September 7 and have held 24-hour-a-day picket lines since.
Luis Cuevas, a shop steward for his union, showed up at the picket line at 4:30 am on September 7 to make sure everything was ready. “We had such a massive group in the morning, I never thought I would see so many people on strike at 5 am in the morning,” he said. He ended up staying out until 6:30 that evening, losing his voice in the process. “I just got swept up in the energy,” he said.
The main issue that prompted workers to strike is health care. In the winter slow season, with fewer tourists visiting Chicago, hotels often reduce their workers’ hours. Even though they remain full-time employees, many lose health insurance coverage until business picks back up again. “While business booms in the summer and people work incredibly hard … many are frankly kicked to the curb in the wintertime when business slows down,” said Sarah Lyons, a research analyst with UNITE HERE Local 1, the union representing the workers. “This is the year that we said, ‘No more, no more winter where people lose their health coverage….’ Folks are willing to do what it’ll take to achieve that.”
Cuevas has also been through the strain of losing his health care in the winter: He had his hours cut in his first year working in the industry. “Maybe six months into the year they were still telling me it was the slow season,” he recalled. “Eight months consecutively … isn’t a slow season anymore.” But because he was still expected to work for the hotel, he couldn’t go looking for a new job. “That’s when I knew something had to change.” It motivated him to become a shop steward with his union, which meant he was in the room negotiating with the companies and had to tell his coworkers that their employers weren’t meeting their demand for year-round health care. “People started getting angry,” he said.
“Hilton is responsible to keep [us] on health care throughout the year instead of taking us for granted,” Graham agreed.
Workers are also pressing for other improvements in their working conditions, including wages that keep up with the rising cost of living in Chicago, workloads that don’t overtax their bodies, and more sick days so they can visit doctors when the physical work takes its toll or they get sick. Graham noted that she and her coworkers are being asked to make up more and more rooms and work mandatory overtime. “It was time to stand up and take notice of what we go through,” she said. “The disrespect is outrageous.”
It’s not an easy step to take. “Going on strike, everybody was scared and nervous,” Graham said. It’s been hard on her family that she’s been gone for so many hours to be on the picket line; they’re drawing on savings while she’s on strike. But she and her coworkers feel it’s worth it. “People are tired of being pushed around and being disrespected,” she said.
The striking workers “are showing the company that they care,” Cuevas said. “People want to have an open, friendly, productive dialogue with [the hotels]; we want a contract to get signed for the benefit of both sides. And more than anything, everyone just wants to get back to work.”
The hotels “should know exactly what it would take to settle” the strike, Lyons said. “We’ve been meeting with them since the summer. This should come as no surprise.” Over 3,000 hotel employees voted to authorize an industry-wide strike on August 15. And then at midnight on August 31, employees’ contracts, which had been in effect for five years, expired.
The strike itself has been powerful for the workers involved. “We treat each other like we’re family now,” Graham said. She’s met people in departments where she never knew anyone before, such as room service and the banquet hall. “It’s like we came together as one family. It is so, so great.” She’s a picket captain, leading the chants and the noise-making. “It’s loud on the line,” she said with a laugh. “There’s crackers, there’s drums. It’s just great out there, it picks up your spirit.”
The strike comes after a huge victory that became reality just a few months ago. Unionized hotel workers staged a campaign dubbed “Hands Off, Pants On” to get the city to pass an ordinance requiring they be given panic buttons for when guests harass and assault them and requiring hotels to draft and comply with clear anti-harassment policies. It passed late last year and went into effect on July 1. “Those very same women … are now advocating for year-round health care to protect themselves, their families, and their bodies,” Lyons said.
Graham was one of the leaders of the anti-harassment campaign. “People don’t understand what goes on in the hotel with some guests…. Some guests can be very nasty, answering the door with nothing on,” she said. “It was time for us to have some kind of protection.”
The “Hands Off, Pants On” victory also helped workers feel empowered going into the strike. “That gave [my coworkers] a good boost, a good power boost,” she said. “Sure they was scared to go on strike, all of us was. But if we can win this, we can win anything.”
“We give [the hotels] a lot of our blood, sweat, and tears and they don’t appreciate it,” she added. “They need to wake up… They don’t realize we’re the ones that make them their money.”