|By Barbara Rose, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Aug. 19, 2006 - With union contracts set to expire in less than two weeks at some of the Chicago-area's biggest hotels, workers are ratcheting up their push for settlements.
The month-old talks, the first since 2002 when a strike was narrowly averted, are heating up just as the rebounding industry heads into its busiest season.
A reinvigorated Unite Here, which represents nearly 7,000 Chicago-area workers, is pressuring large chains in major cities to set standards it hopes will improve the lot of hotel workers nationwide.
One goal is creating jobs that will boost the union's largely minority and immigrant workforce into the middle class.
Average pay for hotel union housekeepers, restaurant workers and others in Chicago is about $12 per hour.
For the first time, the union is negotiating separately with Hilton Hotels Corp. and Global Hyatt Corp., the two biggest employers with about 2,000 and 1,700 local union workers respectively. A third set of negotiations is under way with other hotels.
Hyatt workers are scheduled to vote Tuesday to authorize a strike if necessary, following a similar vote Monday by Hilton workers. Such votes are intended to jolt negotiations into higher gear.
Hilton negotiations come on the heels of a contract agreement with New York hotels and a separate national pledge to work toward "labor peace" in cities where agreements are expiring.
"The idea is to create essentially a national contract," said Robert Bruno, labor expert at University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Hilton is in the best position to play GM to their UAW," he added, referring to the auto industry's history of pattern bargaining agreements.
Unite Here's Local One singled out Hilton for criticism when Chicago talks began, but negotiations now appear to be proceeding most slowly with Hyatt, the Chicago-based chain whose properties include the city's biggest hotel, Hyatt Regency Chicago, with more than 2,000 rooms.
"We're concerned about the signals we're getting from [Hyatt]," Local One spokesman Lars Negstad said Friday. "We're concerned about whether we'll be able to reach a fair settlement by deadline."
Hyatt, in an e-mail statement, said, "Our employees are the cornerstone of our business and we are working diligently to achieve a new collective bargaining agreement that is fair to all parties."
Similarly, a Hilton spokesman said the company is "focused on achieving a fair agreement."
Ted Mandigo, a hotel consultant based in Elmhurst, does not anticipate a lengthy negotiation.
"I don't think the hotels are going to let this be a protracted situation," he said.
"If they get stalemated at the table the union likely would take action," but any work stoppage would be "short-lived," he predicted. "We're stepping into the convention season, the busiest time of the year."
Neither union nor hotel officials would discuss their proposals, but Unite Here is reported to be seeking a three-year contract with more manageable workloads as well as better wages and benefits.
In 2002, when the industry was staggering from the sharp drop in business following the Sept. 11 attacks, Chicago workers won a $3.27 hourly raise over four years, plus lower health-care costs. The union said the deal, coming after years of meager increases, represented an average 11.5 percent annual increase in wages and benefits.
This time around, the union hopes to capitalize on the industry's improved outlook. Occupancies at Chicago-area hotels averaged about 62 percent for the 12 months through May, up nearly 7 percent compared with the year-earlier period. Average daily room rates increased nearly 11 percent to about $111, according to Smith Travel Research.
Still, Mandigo said rates have only recently returned to their pre-Sept. 11 peak. "We've waived inflationary increases for four or five years," he said.
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune
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