No vacancies on the picket line in Chicago

September 18, 2018

Joseph Sinclair reports from Chicago on the latest in the strike by hotel workers at 26 hotels across the city — with solidarity for the strikers growing every day.

THOUSANDS OF striking hotel workers capped off a week of picketing last week with big rallies and marches in downtown Chicago last Thursday — and with workers at yet another hotel joining their union sisters and brothers at the 25 hotels already on strike.

Some 6,000 members of UNITE HERE Local 1 went on strike September 7 in the first citywide hotel strike in over a century and one of the largest strikes in recent Chicago history.

In addition to safer workloads, higher wages, more sick days and improved job security, one of strikers’ most important demands is year-round health insurance in an industry where workers with lower seniority are laid off during the slower winter months and lose access to benefits.

“The Hyatt Regency said we have to stock up on our medication if we’re diabetic,” said Marabel Grande, explaining the hotel’s so-called health care policy. “And if you get into an accident or you needed surgery, do it before your time [covered by insurance] lapses. Or hold your breath.”

Striking hotel workers and their supporters rally in Chicago
Striking hotel workers and their supporters rally in Chicago (UNITE HERE Local 1 | Facebook)

Last Thursday afternoon, the mood was festive and celebratory as some 4,000 strikers and their supporters filled the Ogden Plaza Park downtown. A mariachi provided music for reveling picketers.

Every couple minutes, an organizer announced the arrival of union members from a new hotel. Workers marched in from all directions, banging drums, chanting and waving signs. As they poured into the rally point, the crowd swelled, bursting into chants, cheers and dances.

A large contingent of workers from other unions, which have roundly refused to cross picket lines, were in attendance in solidarity with workers from all 26 hotels.

Speakers at the rally pointed to Chicago as the seat of the U.S. labor movement in both the distant and recent past — from the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012, the auto mechanics’ strike last year and the window washers’ walkout this summer, to UNITE HERE’s own victory in the “Hands Off, Pants On” initiative that won a city ordinance to protect hospitality workers such as housekeepers and servers from the threat of sexual assault.

Local 1 members led the charge in getting the Chicago City Council to pass the law that went into effect July 1, requiring hotels to provide panic buttons to housekeepers so they can alert security when sexually harassed by guests.

Themes of unity, family, continued struggle and workers’ solidarity were woven through all the speeches before workers began to march up Michigan Avenue, stopping at several hotels to chant and rally before moving on .

What you can do

For more information on the strike and to post a solidarity photo, go to the Chicago Hotel Strike Solidarity Facebook page. UNITE HERE Local 1 is asking supporters to post solidarity photos generally on social media with the hashtag #ChicagoHotelStrike.

The final rally had an even more festive atmosphere, as thousands of workers flowed into the park at the north end of the Magnificent Mile, drums were set up and a throng of picketers danced, cheered and chanted in a circle. Meanwhile, management from the Drake Hotel looked on from the rooftop and from vaulted, chandelier-lit restaurants devoid of workers or diners.

ESPECIALLY WELCOME to the day’s action were workers from the 219-room Cambria Chicago Magnificent Mile, where union members joined the strike on September 10.

Whereas workers at the 25 hotels that voted to strike initially had up to 90 percent of workers voting to strike, Cambria initially fell short of the 80 percent of approval votes needed to authorize a strike.

According to multiple Cambria workers, they were just five votes shy of reaching their goal when it was discovered that Cambria’s management had lied to workers in the housekeeping department, saying that if they went on strike, management had recourse to fire them. One Cambria worker explained:

When the housekeepers found out he was lying, they signed, and we went on strike the very next day. We went to work the next day, and at 11 a.m. sharp, in the middle of the shift, everybody left. The manager was asking us, “What’s going to happen without you here?” and bought a really nice, big lunch. But nobody ate anything, because everybody was outside!

The Cambria worker said co-workers gained enthusiasm and determination by seeing the energy of other striking hotels and hoped his work could inspire others. “Everybody who went first inspired us,” the worker said. “The energy around the city helped us. I think when other people see us, they’ll be inspired. Because we’re fighting for the rights not only for hotel workers, but for every single worker.”

Sam, a doorman at the Cambria for the last decade, was determined to strike for his union sisters and brothers. “In the slow season, my co-workers don’t get health care,” he said. “We think this is absolutely unfair. They have families, just like I do, so we want them to be covered.”

After immigrating from Nigeria 17 years ago, where his family still resides, Sam has found a generous community among his fellow workers — and now, through the strike, among other hotel workers, too.

He spoke to that bond and the resolve it provides on the picket line:

We have a great relationship, and that’s why we support them, and they support us. We are meeting new friends from other companies as well. You never know what kind of support you have, until something like this happens. Chicago is my home away from home. I try to go back to Nigeria as often as I can. Everybody is back home. It is tough. But I have a huge family of co-workers, friends — we make it happen.

Sam demands that executives and management at Choice Hotels, which owns the Cambria, extend the same level of dignity and respect toward his co-workers that he and his team have built among themselves — and he made it clear how that can happen:

I love working at the Cambria. But in circumstances like this, where we need certain demands, and they are not meeting them, we have to unfortunately step up and say this is what we need to do for us and our teammates. Hopefully, those demands will be met. Until they are, we are going to be out here letting them know that it’s unacceptable.

Carmen, a Local 1 shop steward at Cambria spoke of the realities of hotel work where low wages and higher workloads are bringing workers to a breaking point. “People are starting at $10.25 to $10.50 hourly, and they are working three people’s jobs,” Carmen said. “Once this was okay because they would get tips, but [ride-share programs like Uber] means no one has cash, so no one is getting tips.”

WITH THE labor movement, particularly the unionized public-sector workforce, rocked by the Janus v. ASFCME decision that undermines unions, and only 6.5 percent of private-sector employees being unionized, a successful, high-profile private-sector strike like this one is highly significant, and critical for the future success of the labor movement.

This strike was organized to have the greatest impact and strength. The hotel workers’ union waited for all shop’s contracts to expire at once — a feat that took several years of planning. There was also a successful vote to raise dues in order to better prepare for this strike.

Local 1 workers have proven it can be done, and labor around the nation has taken notice.

On September 10, the Marriott UNITE HERE Local 5, which represents 11,000 workers in Honolulu and Oahu, voted 95 percent in favor of authorizing a strike. In Boston’s Local 26, an overwhelming 96 percent of Marriott workers voted to authorize a strike. On September 12, 8,000 San Francisco and San Jose Marriott employees voted 98.6 percent for strike authorization.

Many people around the country are watching Chicago’s strike, seeing the power of unions and feeling emboldened to take action. This is exactly what many were waiting for. As Carmen said:

This is our first strike! They weren’t expecting us. We strike not only for today, but for the future. We have children to feed. Our children need health care. We have family to support. We have bills to pay.

We want to work. We bring a lot to our hotel and the country, and we need respect. We understand that everything we have now is because someone else had our back and fought for us before. Now, it’s our turn to support the people who come after us. Everything you see in this city is because of workers, and we deserve this.

Schuyler Stallcup contributed to this article.

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