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Chicago hotel workers demand wage hike
"Ready to strike"

By Nicole Colson | August 30, 2002 | Page 12

"WHO ARE we? Local 1!" That chant rang out along Chicago's posh Michigan Avenue shopping district August 23 as some 4,000 hotel workers and their supporters marched to demand better wages and benefits.

Members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union Local 1 organized the spirited demonstration after talks broke down between the union and management at 29 Chicago-area hotels. Workers marched behind banners and carried signs that declared, "No contract, no peace."

Earlier this month, HERE members voted by a 98 percent margin to strike August 31. At issue is the fact that Chicago hotel workers are paid $10 an hour less than their counterparts in cities like New York and San Francisco.

And while Chicago hotel workers pay $85 a month in health insurance premiums, workers in New York get full family health care benefits. "I don't really even use the health care right now, because I don't really have the money to pay for it," Ticia, a room attendant, told Socialist Worker. "I can't afford to pay the co-payment that you have to pay."

Horace, a banquet and coffee-break waiter at the Westin Hotel, agreed. "Health insurance is the number one issue for me, and then there's the pay," he said. "Basically, my pay is dependent on my tips. If it wasn't for my wife, I wouldn't have health care. I can't afford to pay what they want to charge us."

The hotel bosses blame September 11 for a falloff in tourism, claiming that they can't afford to give Chicago workers a raise and better benefits. But workers aren't buying it. "For years now, wages haven't been applied like they should," said Francisco, a doorman and member of the union negotiating committee. "The company is making millions of dollars in profits, but they'd rather pay two ladies $8 dollars an hour instead of paying one lady $16 an hour, and then on top of that they'll work the two ladies, twice as hard."

In fact, nationwide, hotel profits actually rose this year--to $17.2 billion, up from $16.7 billion in 2001. "They can give up $2 million to pay the employees, and it wouldn't hurt their profits at all," said Horace. "They say that we're being greedy by asking for what we're asking for, but they're being greedy because they're not willing to share the wealth. The companies are only saying, 'Me, me, me.' And they say that we're wrong for saying, 'What about us?'"

Union laundry workers, electricians and engineers have already pledged to honor HERE picket lines in the event of a strike. And workers feel confident that they can win if they do walk.

"It's the housekeeping department that makes all the hotels run," said Gisara Hudson, a housekeeper at the Omni Ambassador East. "Without us, they won't have rooms to sell."

As Ticia said, "We didn't have a strong union before. But now we're ready to fight. As long as we stick together, I think we're going to win."

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