One Week Into Chicago Hotel Worker Strike, Talks Continue but No End in Sight: 'It's Going to be a Long Fight'
Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz | Chicago Tribune | September 14, 2018 2:56pm
Sept. 14--Ionela Petrea, who works as a server in the Hyatt Regency bar, has spent the past week on the picket line and at the negotiating table.
As the strike affecting 26 downtown hotels pushed into its seventh day, Petrea took a drag of a cigarette and made an educated guess on how much longer it would go on.
"It's going to be a long fight," she said Thursday as she watched several thousand hotel workers pour into a park for a rally after marching up Michigan Avenue.
The downtown hotel worker strike, which UNITE HERE Local 1 says is the broadest coordinated hotel strike the city has seen, ended its first week with no end in sight as workers miss paychecks and hotels feel the pinch of missing workers.
Some guests have complained of long lines to check in, rooms not being cleaned and noise from chanting protesters, and some hotel restaurants have closed because of the work stoppage. In addition, at least two conferences have relocated so as not to cross picket lines.
The Democratic Attorneys General Association, which was scheduled to host 200 people at the JW Marriott this week for its fall quarterly policy program, decided to move the event to show solidarity with workers.
"Democratic AGs have a strong record of standing with unions and supporting workers," Lizzie Ulmer, communications director for the association, said in a statement. "This week and this conference are not different to those values."
The association moved its events to the offices of the law firm Edelson and the Kimpton Gray hotel, where workers are not on strike, Ulmer said.
The Midwest LGBTQ Health Symposium, which takes place this weekend and has more than 500 people registered, also is being moved from its original hotel venue to "stand with workers," organizer Howard Brown Health announced to participants this week. The conference now will be at Malcolm X College. Howard Brown declined to disclose the hotel that was its original venue.
Thousands of housekeepers, doormen, cooks, bartenders and other hotel workers have been picketing around-the-clock in shifts at their hotels since Sept. 7 to demand year-round health insurance as they negotiate new contracts. The 26 downtown hotels where workers are striking are among 30 unionized hotels where contracts covering 6,000 employees expired Aug. 31, including brands from Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott. A full list is at chicaghotelstrike.org.
To mark the end of the first week of the strike, the workers took their fight to the Magnificent Mile, waving picket signs, beating drums and shouting into bullhorns as they marched past the storefronts of luxury brands. There was a mariachi band.
About 2,500 to 3,000 people participated in the march, according to police on the scene.
Each hotel group bargains with the union separately, and negotiating sessions at some hotels, at least, are continuing as the strike goes on.
Petrea, who is on the worker negotiating committee at the Hyatt, said there have been four negotiating sessions total, two since the strike began, with another set for the end of this week. She expects more to be scheduled.
Among the topics being discussed are heavy workloads and wage increases for tipped workers, but the issue causing the most friction is year-round health insurance, Petrea said.
Currently, some workers get temporarily laid off during the slow winter months and lose their health insurance for a few months. Petrea, 41, who has worked at Hyatt for eight years, says she gets laid off January and February, and though her health insurance continues for three months after the layoff it also doesn't kick in again for three months after she is reinstated in March. That means she doesn't have health insurance in April and May.
"It's always a concern," she said. "All the accidents happen when you're missing the insurance."
The negotiations are difficult because bolstering health coverage represents a greater expense for the hotel, Petrea said, but she thinks they can afford it.
"Hotels are making more and more money and we are the ones making that happen," she said.
Hyatt Hotels and Marriott International have expressed disappointment that the strike was called so early in bargaining and say an impasse has not been reached on any issue.
Hotels have assured guests that they are open for business and are staffing creatively to ensure service runs smoothly.
In a statement, Hilton Hotels and Resorts said: "We've had the benefit of our managers from around the country as well as our local Chicago hotels take on the roles of housekeeper, server and doorman. More and more of our union team members are choosing to return to work and we welcome them to do so.
"It is still early in the negotiations process and Hilton is committed to negotiating in good faith with UNITE HERE Local 1," the statement continued. "We look forward to an agreement that is fair to our valued team members and to our hotels."
It isn't clear if there are different issues at different hotels.
Emmanuel San, who has worked as a bellman at the Sheraton Grand Chicago for 22 years, said it isn't just that workers get laid off during the winter months; sometimes their hours get drastically reduced, and whereas the policy has long been that anyone who worked at least one day per month qualified for health insurance, there is a new proposal to raise the requirement to 32 hours of work a week to qualify for health insurance.
"A lot of my co-workers are trying to raise families, and you know how hard it is to raise a family without health insurance," said San, who has been pulling eight-hour shifts daily on the picket line.
As the raucous union crowd poured into a park at the north end of Michigan Avenue at the end of their march, San said he feels "pumped," as "we are all in this together." But he hopes it ends soon for everyone's sake.
Along the march route, San stepped out to hug a hotel manager who was observing from the sidelines.
"When everything is said and done, we will be back together as a family," he said.