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Standing up to bosses
Chicago hotel workers want a living wage

September 6, 2002 | Page 12

YOU CAN'T live on $8.83 an hour. That's the message that more than 7,000 Chicago hotel workers sent in their fight for decent wages and health benefits.

As Socialist Worker went to press, members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 1 were waiting to hear the outcome of continued negotiations with the Hotel Employers Labor Relations Association, which represents 25 Chicago-area hotels.

The union's contract expired August 31, and members were ready to strike that night--in what would have been Chicago's first hotel walkout--after management's August 29 offer fell short of their demands. But at the last minute, Illinois Gov. George Ryan stepped in on August 31 to bring the two sides back to the bargaining table.

As negotiations continued, some workers were frustrated that they were still on the job, the day after the strike deadline. "We were ready to go out," said one Chicago Hilton housekeeper. "I've been ready to go. Now we're just waiting to hear."

Local 1 members, who work at some of downtown's ritziest hotels, are demanding the same wages and benefits as their counterparts in other cities. Room attendants and cleaners in Chicago make $8.83 an hour, compared to New York workers, who make $18.15.

Also at issue is health care. Chicago workers pay an $85-a-month premium for health insurance. In LA, workers pay $10, while New York workers pay nothing for coverage.

On August 29, hotel bosses came up with a "final" offer that would have increased wages by $1.17 an hour in the first year of the five-year contract, with 60-cent increases each year after that. The co-pay for family coverage was cut to $45.

But Local 1's negotiating team voted the offer down. "Under management's proposal, a Chicago housekeeper in 2007 would be making less than what housekeepers in Washington, D.C., are making today," said Local 1 spokesman Lars Negstad.

As Maxwell Teyeson, a Ghanaian immigrant who has been a night cleaner at the Chicago Hilton for five years, put it, "These hotels make millions every year. They can afford to pay us a decent wage."

One reason that Chicago hotel workers are so poorly paid is the history of Local 1. Until just a few years ago, Local 1 was notorious for its internal corruption and toothless deals with the hotel bosses.

In December 1999, the International put Local 1 under trusteeship, and last year, Henry Tamarin, who was brought in from New York, was elected president. Local 1's new leadership hopes to prove itself in this current contract fight in preparation for a big organizing drive set for the fall.

Union members were prepared for a walkout, with 98 percent voting to authorize a strike last month. Round-the-clock picket duty was organized, and the union has been collecting food donations for weeks.

Some 4,000 union members and their supporters turned out for an August 23 march that streamed up the fancy Michigan Avenue shopping district. But the hotel bosses have prepared for a strike as well. They lined up scabs well beforehand. Last week, Local 1 members picketed an area day labor office that was advertising temporary hotel jobs. Plus, the owners have an agreement to lock out workers if the union singles out any individual hotels for strike action.

As SW went to press September 1, workers were still waiting for results of negotiations.

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