Ready to Strike for ‘New York Pay,’ Chicago Hotel Workers Win Wage and Benefits Boosts

en Español

Three days past a strike deadline, with workers ready to walk, members of HERE Locals 1 and 450 won a new contract with Chicago hotels. The new pact represents not only a victory on wages and benefits, which for years have lagged behind those of hotel workers in other large cities. It also represents a union recovering from years of corruption.

What remains to be seen is whether the locals can increase democracy for the members, and in turn improve their wages and job security even more.

In 1995, the federal government began its monitoring of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 1. By 2001, six years of government oversight had led to the expulsion of 17 corrupted leaders of the local. Both Local 1 President Thomas Hanley and his father, former international President Edward T. Hanley, were forced out.

Meanwhile, the HERE international had taken over the local in late 1999. In a letter to members, the international blamed financial mismanagement by the union’s leaders, including Hanley. Among the problems cited were insufficient justification for expenses and failure to accurately keep track of dues and financial reports.

TRUSTEE BECOMES PRESIDENT

With the ouster of the old officials, the union needed new leadership. Among those vying to run Local 1 were a slate that had opposed the trusteeship and the trustee, Henry Tamarin, who ultimately won the presidency in June 2001.

Over the next year, HERE brought in organizers from across the country to staff Local1.

Katherine Bissell is the director of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues. The Committee helped acclimate the new HERE staffers. “A lot of them came from Nevada,” she said. “Some came from the rank and file, but HERE staff are often sent around the country to work on different campaigns.

“We did an orientation for HERE staff in February,” she added, “and we were involved in the planning stages [of the contract campaign].”

In August 2002, Local 1, representing 5,800 hotel workers, joined Local 450 and its 1,200 members in bargaining with 31 mostly downtown hotels. Primarily at issue were low wages, the result of weak contracts negotiated by the union’s old leadership. In Chicago, the second-largest hotel market in the U.S., workers’ pay lagged behind HERE members’ in New York and Los Angeles.

Hotel dishwashers made $8.58 an hour, compared to $10.55 in Los Angeles and $17.64 in New York. Chicago hotel room attendants made $8.83, compared to $10.32/$18.15 in Los Angeles/New York. Now HERE was out to more than double wages. Members wore buttons: “I © New York Pay.”

In addition, Chicago workers were paying $85 a month in healthcare costs, while New York workers paid nothing.

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“From 1997 to 2001, the hotels made more money than ever in history,” Tamarin told reporters. “They kept it. It’s time to share.”

BIG STRIKE VOTE

Members apparently felt the same way. On August 12, HERE members voted 3,952-67 to strike. The deadline was set for August 31.

As negotiations continued, strike preparation continued as well. The Interfaith Committee organized a strike kitchen with its “Hungry for Justice” campaign, getting churches and community groups to donate food for striking workers. Teamsters Local 705 donated warehouse space for food storage.

Meanwhile, hotel workers gathered to show their solidarity. During Friday rush hour August 23, workers took up signs and banners and walked the “Magnificent Mile,” Chicago’s famous stretch of luxury hotels and high-end shops. The corporate owners of some of these stores, like Niketown, are famous for their exploitation of workers in Asia and Latin America, the homelands of many of Chicago’s hotel workers. The Chicago Tribune described the march as “massive.”

On August 31, with just hours before the midnight strike deadline, Illinois Governor Jim Ryan urged the two sides to keep talking, saying that a hotel strike would hurt the state’s economy. Organizers feared this might weaken the strike threat by turning the public against the workers.

“When I heard that the governor was involved, I wasn’t sure whether that would be good or bad for the workers,” said Bissell.

But the interference may have worked in workers’ favor, because Ryan raised the issue of economic losses for the hotels. A strike would have compounded the losses hotels were experiencing since September 11 last year. The hotels had been using the attacks as an excuse for refusing to offer better wages and health care. In the end, the industry’s losses of the past year may have made the hotels more vulnerable to the strike threat.

Also at stake was the International Manufacturing Technology Show. Set for September 4, the event annually attracts 120,000 visitors, who fill most of Chicago’s downtown hotels.

On September 3, the 67-member rank and file negotiating committee voted to accept the hotels’ offer, and two days later members voted it up 892-153.

Hotel room attendants now earn $10 an hour, increasing to $12.10 by the end of the four-year contract. Dishwashers will now make $9.75, and the cost to workers for health insurance will drop to $30 a month by the end of the contract.

Leah Samuel covers race and poverty for The Chicago Reporter.