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Housekeeper's Workload a Big Issue Behind the 3-hour
Work Stoppage at the Hyatt Regency Chicago

By Julie Wernau, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 27, 2010--Henry Tamarin, president of Unite Here Local 1, stood on the steps of Stetson's Chop House Wednesday morning and told Hyatt Regency Chicago workers they should return to work for now, but to hold on to their picket signs just in case.

"We are in the midst of a struggle that we are not going to solve in a few hours this morning," Tamarin said through a megaphone.

An estimated 400 workers at the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker Drive had formed a picket line and took part in a three-hour "spontaneous work stoppage." The walkout, the first in more than a year of negotiations, signaled growing frustration about the workloads of housekeepers, who are among 6,000 union workers at 31 hotels with contracts that expired in August.

Negotiations with Hyatt resumed May 16 for the first time since October, said Annemarie Strassel, spokeswoman for Unite Here. She said no progress has been made.

"Hyatt has far more to worry about if these things are genuinely spontaneous, because it suggests that the rank and file is taking things into their own hands," said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "If you're getting organic, gut-level reaction from individual workers, it's tough to control that."

Bruno said such tactics generally don't occur if union members feel there are genuine efforts to come to an agreement.

In a statement, John Schafer, vice president and managing director at Hyatt Regency Chicago, called the union action "regrettable," adding that the most productive place to address workplace matters was at the negotiating table.

"We fully expect to reach a satisfactory agreement," he said.

Housekeeping staff said the hotel in recent months has undergone major renovations that significantly increased their workload. Donna Steed, a room attendant, said the west tower's new beds and bedding are too heavy and have caused injuries to workers' backs, wrists, shoulders and legs.

Gretchen Spear, promotions manager for Hyatt Regency Chicago, said the beds are lighter than the old beds.

"The health and safety of our associates are our highest priorities," she said, "and we are very proud of our workplace safety record."

Steed said housekeepers clean one room every half hour. She makes $14.60 an hour. Hyatt has been criticized by the hotel union in the past, following a study using data provided by Unite Here that found the chain had more housekeeper injuries than any major hotel chain.

"Our bodies are in pain, and Hyatt is ignoring us," said Claudette Evans, who also works in the housekeeping department.

Workers said they made several attempts to take their concerns to management with no success, and that union representatives have been prevented from entering the building on the workers' behalf for more than a week.

Steed said she and the other housekeepers were prepared to leave if management refused to meet with them Wednesday morning. When they were told to start their shifts or clock out, the workers walked. Unite Here said the walkout quickly spread to the rest of the hotel.

Spear said union representatives are welcome back when they agree to comply with the "on-site visit provisions agreed to by the union and the hotel long ago."

jwernau@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2010, Chicago Tribune

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