|By Julie Wernau, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
November 14, 2009 --A hotel union letter sent to 200 people warning that possible strikes could disrupt events booked at five Chicago downtown hotels has raised the ire of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau.
"If workers go on strike, customer service could be disrupted. At the Congress Hotel -- where workers have been on strike for over six years -- guests have complained of a lack of amenities, roaches, and poor service," reads the Nov. 2 letter, signed by Jessica Lawlor, a research analyst at Unite Here Local 1, which represents hotel workers in downtown Chicago.
The letter recommends that hotel customers put protective language into contracts made with the five Starwood hotels where workers have authorized a strike if necessary.
"There is a heated labor dispute right now, and we think it is in the interest of customers to know what they're getting into before coming to Chicago," said Annemarie Strassel, spokeswoman for Unite Here Local 1.
Union contracts covering 6,000 workers at 31 hotels in downtown Chicago expired Aug. 31, and the two sides have not been able to agree.
Dick Abram, vice president of corporate relationships at EventLink International Inc. in Dallas, contacted the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau last week after a client told him that Unite Here warned of a possible strike. The client decided not to book the event in Chicago.
"Chicago is a great destination but in reality it is not a good business decision for me to place clients in cities where union staff call to harass my clients and tell them the hotels will be on strike when they are in your city," Abram wrote in an e-mail to the convention bureau, a copy of which the Chicago Tribune obtained.
Reached by phone, Abram declined to reveal the name of his client. After his client complained, Abram said he called Lawlor at the union, who then did a "very convincing job of telling me not to book events in Chicago." He also received a copy of the letter addressed to Chicago hotel customers, he said. Lawlor did not return a call seeking comment.
"There's a series of tactics of harassing clients, telling people not to come to Chicago in a way which really hurts the city," said Jack Johnson, vice president of external relations at Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. "... They're making it more difficult for us to market the city."
Unite Here is also supporting a proposed city ordinance that would require hotels to inform customers if and when a strike occurs. That measure will be heard in the Finance Committee on Monday. Marc Gordon, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, called the letter and the proposed ordinance damaging tactics designed to force through "unreasonable" contract demands.
The proposed ordinance, supported by Unite Here and introduced May 13 by Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 22nd, and about three dozen co-signers, would require a "struck hotel" to notify potential guests of the work stoppage prior to booking, including through third-party booking sites.
Strassel said the measure is meant to keep customers informed.
"We're certainly not telling people to not come to Chicago," she said.
The Chicago Department of Law warned in an opinion in 2005 and again in July of this year that the proposed ordinance is "legally vulnerable."
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