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6 Years Later, Pickets Stand Firm: About Half of the Congress Plaza Hotel
 Workers in Chicago, Illinois Refuse to Give Up Fight

By Ron Grossman, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jul. 26, 2009--The picket lines outside the Congress Plaza Hotel long have been a photo-op for celebrities and a pilgrimage site for do-gooders of various faiths and ideologies.

Yet passers-by react to the striking housekeepers and food workers as just another of the mildly annoying inconveniences of big-city life, nonchalantly stepping around them as if avoiding a piece of broken sidewalk.

Perhaps familiarity breeds obliviousness. The strike passed its sixth anniversary last month, making it the longest hotel-employees strike in U.S. history, and the longest current strike in any industry, according to the AFL-CIO.

It has become a part of Chicago's landscape -- and its longevity is something of an enigma. With the city trying to look its best to win the 2016 Olympic Games, the strike lags on in the city's front yard, at a hotel that faces Millennium Park, on the path to the Taste of Chicago and other summertime festivals.

During their long vigil, some of the strikers, who are mostly from Mexico, have straightened out their Immigration status. Others have had babies or passed a milestone that perennially draws newcomers to America: the joy of seeing children graduate college.

Out on the picket line, Guadalupe Perez has her own theory for why the strike has gone on so long.

"It's because we are not blancos," said Perez, a former banquet server. "When there is a white guy in front, it's different."

Perez observed that strikers ask departing guests to fill out a questionnaire about their stay. Their union's strategy is to depict the Congress as a rundown hotel with bush-league service. Most days, one or two people glance at the handout. But when a group of middle-class, English-speaking sympathizers marched alongside them, guests put down their bags to take the questionnaire, the strikers said.

Perez hands out those questionnaires, because the less you have, the more dearly you hold on to it, she said. For a while, Perez, who lives in Chicago, found other employment, but she is now out of a job. Her husband works in a liquor store, and they have two children in college. Their only support is his wages, the union's weekly $225 strike benefits -- and the hope of her getting her job back at the Congress at a decent wage.

"If I leave this," she said, speaking in Spanish and pointing to the picket line, "I lose a lot."

The picketing was triggered by a dispute over wages. Peter Andjelkovich, the hotel's attorney, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, but has previously characterized the union's demand for higher pay as "unreasonable and excessive." The Congress' position is that it can't pay the same as hotels that have the financial resources of a chain behind them. It's the only hotel owned by the Chicago-based partnership that operates it.

In the years since the strike began, the wages of housekeepers at comparable hotels have risen to $14.60 an hour, according to the union. The Congress' offer remains what it was the day its workers walked out: $8.83.

Yet the strike's low profile doesn't mean it hasn't had an impact. It cost one alderman her job and put an Election-Day bounty on another's head.

The strikers union, Unite Here, helped defeat 2nd Ward Alderman Madeline Haithcock in 2007, because she initially supported the hotel's plans to put a sidewalk cafe alongside the strikers' route. The hotel has played rough, too, according to her successor, Ald. Robert Fioretti, a supporter of the striking workers who opposes the sidewalk cafe. "Their emissary, or flunky, said if I didn't sign the application, they'd spend a million dollars to defeat me," Fioretti said.

The strike has its dramatic moments. Barack Obama , as a senator, and Gov. Pat Quinn have walked the picket line. So, too, have anonymous others, as when a Unitarian Church group, a Catholic nun and a lone Socialist joined the strikers on a recent Saturday.

The strike has struck a particular cord with members of Chicago's Jewish community -- awakening memories of working-class forbears who walked earlier picket lines, including those of a predecessor union of Unite Here.

The Congress Hotel's strikers, mostly Spanish speakers, have carried signs saying: "Stop the Shandah" -- Yiddish for "disgrace." The hotel's president, Shlomo Nahmias, is Jewish. Twenty five rabbis signed a petition noting the Bible teaches that workers "like orphans and widows are in need of protection."

"Shlomo said, 'Keep religion in the synagogue' and ripped it up," said Tom Walsh, a staff member of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, who presented the petition.

Nahmias, who declined to be interviewed, has Jewish supporters, too, particularly in the Sephardic community -- Jews who trace their origins to Arab countries. He was born in Israel.

Those who have met Shlomo -- as he insists on being called -- recall him as a teddy bear of a man, friendly and playful in a gruff sort of way. He greets even new acquaintances with a slapping handshake and a hug. When the strikers were his employees, he'd greet them with the likes of "honey" or "dearie."

He's still a presence in their lives. Along with his wife and their dog, Nahmias lives in the hotel and takes a daily stroll down Michigan Avenue. That gives the strikers a flesh-and-blood target for the dogged determination they perhaps wouldn't have if they were fighting an impersonal corporation, invisible to them.

"I'm not going to let him win," said Alfonsina Patino, a housekeeper for 10 years at the hotel. "The hotel said our strike wouldn't last eight days."

Henry Tamarin, president of the union local, characterized the fierce determination of Patino and other strikers. "Workers aren't ideologues, but they have a stubborn sense of right and wrong."

Indeed, on both sides, the strike has been about stubbornness. Many of the employees have found other work. But of the more than 100 employees who walked out, 50 to 60 remain active in a strike others might have given up as a lost cause.

"We're not most people," said Jose Sanchez, who was a cook at the hotel. "It is the nature of us from Mexico to belong to a union, to support it."

Like Sanchez, many of the strikers are emotionally suspended between the ways of their older and newer homelands. They came to this country looking for better opportunity, endured the snubs that immigrants encounter, but hold steadfast to the American Dream they're determined to pass on.

"I'm doing this," Sanchez said waving a picket sign, "for the people who come after me."

rgrossman@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2009, Chicago Tribune

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