|By Julie Wernau, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 17, 2010--Hundreds of Hilton Chicago hotel workers began a three-day strike Saturday in protest of the Hilton hotel chain's deal to buy back millions of dollars in debt from the Federal Reserve at a steep discount.
The deal angered workers, members of Unite Here Local 1, who have been in contract negotiations with Blackstone-owned Hilton for more than a year. They say it is their tax dollars that are helping out the hotel chain.
"They got all this money from the federal government, and yet they won't give us a contract," said Gloria King, among about four dozen workers banging on pots and carrying signs that read "Taxpayers on Strike" outside the hotel at 720 S. Michigan Ave.
The Chicago workers are joining other Unite Here members who began work stoppages in Honolulu and San Francisco last week. Unite Here has argued that the major hotel chains are using the down economy as an excuse to offer proposals that would lock workers into a "permanent recession."
Unite Here Local 1 spokeswoman Annemarie Strassel said all Hilton employees expect to return to work Monday.
Contracts for 8,000 hotel workers in the Chicago area expired in August 2009 and the union has been unable to reach a deal with ownership since. In the meantime, employees at several downtown hotels have voted to authorize strikes if necessary. Workers at the Hyatt Regency near O'Hare International Airport were the first to strike this September, a demonstration that lasted one day.
"These are the steps that workers have decided are appropriate at this time to send a message to the companies that we're very frustrated at where we're at with negotiations," Strassel said.
Hilton Chicago said the hotel is able continue "operating as normal."
"Union tactics such as work stoppages and demonstrations will do nothing to bring us closer to a new contract," Hilton said in a statement. "They are harmful to employees, to the hospitality industry and to the city of Chicago."
Hilton said employees receive benefits and wages that are "competitive," including fully paid health insurance with little or no employee contribution. The company said they have offered to increase wages and to increase contributions to protect employee pensions in negotiations, and to substantially increase health fund contributions. Hilton said a union proposal to increase wages 7 percent per year is untenable.
Unite Here said that Hilton is among several hotels that are pushing for higher room quotas for housekeepers, a change the union said causes concern about potential injuries to staff.
Fanisha Sullivan-Jones, who works in the Hilton Chicago's catering department, said the short strike is important to show hotel executives that workers mean business.
"They want us to work for pennies," said Sullivan-Jones, who has been at the hotel for three years. "They want us to work in different departments and different jobs, and that's fine, but you want me to have these additional responsibilities and you don't want to pay me for it."
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