Striking Chicago Hotel Workers Celebrate Labor Day in the Rain, Sitting on Michigan Avenue

Striking bartenders, maids, and other employees at the Congress Plaza Hotel in downtown Chicago are in it for the long haul. The workers-members of the rejuvenated Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local 1-celebrated Labor Day with civil disobedience, sitting down in the middle of Michigan Avenue traffic, right in front of the downtown hotel.

About 250 of the strikers-who walked out on June 15-and their supporters turned out for the action in the pouring rain, and 21 were arrested, including the local’s reformer president Henry Tamarin. The sit-in catapulted the hotel strike back into the local media spotlight, threatening another deep gouge in the hotel’s already flagging customer base.

Even before the strike began, the workers voted by 90% to walk out and stay out until management agreed to the terms of a citywide agreement-even if it meant forcing the Congress’s out-of-town owner to sell or shut down the 840-room hotel.

“When you’ve worked for a company as long as we have,” says Sharon Williams, a phone operator at the Congress Hotel, “you deserve some respect.”


But the lack of respect the workers got after five months of hard bargaining was startling. The hotel refused to raise wages to $10 an hour as other downtown hotels had done last September.

Instead, management demanded harsh givebacks, and in May the hotel dropped workers to $8.21 an hour-a 7% cut. The hotel also refused to pay health insurance increases, effectively eliminating coverage. But management never said they were unable to pay.

“You sit across the table and tell us you refuse to pay,” says Williams, who is on the local’s bargaining committee, “not that you can’t, but you refuse to? We need that money for our families!”

It is conceivable that the hotel thought the strike vote was a bluff. When the 130 employees walked off the job in June, there had not been a strike at a downtown Chicago hotel in living memory.

Even when the same HERE local, along with HERE Local 450, faced down almost 30 other downtown hotels last September, a threatened strike was averted when the hotels backed down and paid up. But Congress Plaza held out of the pattern agreement, leaving their workers making far less than their Chicago counterparts.


Community support was strong from the start of the walkout and picked up from there on. Other unions, such as the Service Employees Local 1 and UNITE, joined the strikers on the picket line, as did community groups like ACORN, Jobs With Justice, and the Coalition of the Homeless. The local media were all over the story, and customers began to shy away.

Picketers walked the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At one point, the union tried to call off the graveyard shift, but strikers asked for it back.



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Union spokesperson Clare Fauke estimates the pickets have discouraged at least 400 customers and several big events, including two big weddings worth $35,000 each. In all, she says the strike has cost the hotel hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition, three major Internet booking,, and recently posted travel advisories for the Congress Plaza Hotel, says Lars Negstad, also a union spokesperson.

The contrast between HERE Local 1 of today and the same local of a few short years ago could not be starker. Corrupt leadership and a knack for inactivity characterized the local for years. “It was like [the union] was non-existent,” says Williams.

But after trusteeship, a reformer named Henry Tamarin became president, and the local reversed course. “After Henry came,” says Williams, “it was like, this is about you guys. We’re here for you. Now it’s our union.”

The proof is to be seen on Michigan Avenue, overlooking Grant Park. There, rank-and-file workers from the Congress Hotel, who made up the bargaining committee, are leading the strike. “They didn’t make us go out on strike,” says Williams. “We voted to go out on strike.”

Congress Hotel workers who had joined workers at other downtown hotels last year on their picket lines now welcome those other hotel workers to the pickets at the Congress.

Community involvement in the strike has led to some novel coalitions-novel at least to much of organized labor. On August 9, for example, an “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride” at a nearby theater drew about 1,000 supporters and hotel strikers, themselves mostly immigrants. After a spirited rally at the theater, demonstrators marched around the Congress hotel.


Yet the hotel’s owner, clothing importer Albert Nasser, shows no signs of blinking. With residences in New York and Geneva, Nasser makes his money supplying Wal-Mart and other discount stores with clothing manufactured in the Philippines.

Nasser seems unconcerned about community pressure, admits Negstad. “He probably doesn’t care,” says Negstad. “The cost of the strike is probably already close to the cost of a settlement. He might even sell or shut it down before he’d settle.”

In fact, with the advent of a strong union at his Philippines plant, Negstad says, Nasser began to subcontract much work to plants in Guatemala and China. Recognizing their common problem, workers at Nasser’s Filipino plant recently joined Congress Hotel strikers in a coordinated day of international solidarity-again to no avail.

“I’m not worried about it,” says Williams. “We’ve been out here in the pouring rain, storming when it looked like the trees would be torn up from the ground. I know this is right, and I put my trust in God. We’re going to be there one day longer than the boss.”