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On the picket line

July 11, 2003 | Page 11

Congress Hotel
By Lauren Fleer

CHICAGO--Workers at the Congress Hotel are heading into their fourth week on strike after management unilaterally imposed a 7 percent wage cut and eliminated their health insurance. Workers have been staging around-the-clock picketing and last Wednesday were joined by hundreds of trade unionists from the area.

More than 500 construction workers, electricians, grocery clerks, janitors, laundry and textile workers, letter carriers, musicians, public employees and teachers mobilized to demand that the Congress give its workers a fair deal. On the same day, textile workers at a Gelmart Industries garment factory in the Philippines demonstrated in a fantastic show of support for the Congress strikers. Albert Nasser, CEO of Gelmart Industries, is also chairman of the partnership that owns the Congress Hotel.

While negotiations between the hotel management and union leadership remain at a standstill, Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 1 proved victorious in the battle with Chicago police for the right to march in front of the hotel's front doors. Union members and officials were initially arrested for occupying the front sidewalk, as the hotel claimed it was their private property.

In return for the marching rights, Local 1 President Henry Tamarin agreed to the Police Department's request that the picket line shut down for 11 hours during the Fourth of July holiday. The pickets resumed at 3 a.m. on July 5, and workers have marched on the front sidewalk ever since.

Though the strike has achieved remarkable displays of support from organized labor--as last week's demonstration and the picket in the Philippines show--there's a glaring weakness. There are still union members at work inside the hotel.

"The union made a strategic decision not to ask the security guards, who are represented by SEIU, to come out on strike," explained HERE researcher Lars Negstad. "We think it will be better to have people we know working security, rather than the hotel bringing in a whole new force that's alien to us."

And while Chicago's fire code regulations would force the hotel to shut down immediately if the building engineers walked out, "that's not our focus right now," reported Negstad. "We have plenty of work to do focusing on the customers and day laborers."

On June 8, HERE will send a delegation to internet travel agency Orbitz, headquartered in Chicago, because they feature the Congress Hotel on their website and book many of their reservations. Two weeks ago, HERE also sent a delegation and organized a subsequent action at Food Team, Inc., the staffing agency responsible for providing most of the replacement workers to the hotel.

These are very important actions, as they hit on the hotel's financial interests. But it should be a matter of principle for other union members not to cross a picket line. And in this case, it's doubly important since the building engineers could put immense pressure on the hotel by refusing to cross.

A community picket is scheduled for July 12 at 11 a.m. outside the Congress Hotel, 520 S. Michigan Ave. Participants are encouraged to bring musical instruments.

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Coca-Cola Bottling
By a Coca-Cola employee

SYLMAR, Calif.--On June 10, Coca-Cola Bottling fired Rick Bronson, a 12-year route driver and a member of Teamsters Local 848, for drinking a diet Pepsi while on break. The termination letter sent to Bronson accused him of "casting discredit on the Company." It also accused him of violating company rule 15, "Slandering employees, the Company or its products."

The alleged incident occurred on May 23, and Bronson was suspended on May 30. In an interview with CNN on June 17, Bronson said, "I asked where in the code of conduct or anywhere in writing or verbally they ever told me that it was illegal to do that and they didn't come back with anything."

The interviewer, Anderson Cooper, then read a statement from Coca-Cola: "This situation involving Mr. Bronson is an unfortunate one. As any employer would expect, we are always hopeful that our employees are respectful and loyal to our products while on the job."

Bronson responded by stating what he feels is the real reason for his suspension--Bronson was a Teamster organizer at the sales center in Sylmar, Calif., where he worked. On May 16, 100 merchandisers in Sylmar voted to join the Teamsters union. "We had 100 merchandisers that they put the product on the shelf in the supermarkets and they came to the union and said they wanted to be represented by the Teamsters, and I was one of the ones that got out the information and answered questions and basically told them what I knew about the union and that was about it," Bronson told CNN.

The Teamsters are filing a grievance on Rick's behalf. Supporters also point out that the Sylmar branch uses Arrowhead spring water for its employees, even though it directly competes with Coke's own brand, Dasani. "Coke is grasping straws on this one," said Teamsters Local 848 Principal Officer and International Vice President James Santangelo. "This is nothing more than an attempt to get rid of a pro-union employee. The Teamsters will fight every step of the way to get Rick's job back."

Coca-Cola has been receiving letters and e-mails in support of Bronson. "I'm going to miss my Bourbon and Coke," wrote Dick Estep, a retired union hand in Texas, but I'll drink Pepsi until Rick gets his job back.!"

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