Striking workers from the Congress Plaza Hotel battle on, even in the face of impossibility, seeking competitive wages and benefits.
Striking workers from the Congress Plaza Hotel battle on, even in the face of impossibility, seeking competitive wages and benefits. September 1 marks 3,000 days since Unite HERE Local 1 walked out in hopes of pressuring the hotel into a new contract. President Barack Obama walked the picket line with workers as a candidate and promised to return from the White House.
“It was a hot day, hot, ridiculous, [we were] called all kinds of names – lazy and stuff,” recalled Jimmy Rose, a 17-year veteran of the hotel, of the first day of the strike.
Lola Contreras, a banquet worker, had a daughter who was 8 years old at the beginning of the strike. She is now old enough to obtain a driver’s license.
Roughly 130 staffers went on strike following six months of working without a contract and an attempted seven percent wage slash in 2002. The cuts were ultimately restored by the labor board. Bargaining for a new contract the hotel offered an hourly wage of $8.83, which fell below average for Chicago hotels. Today’s offer remains the same, according to Unite HERE Local 1 spokesperson Annamarie Strassel, furthering the wage gap by nearly seven dollars an hour.
“We were not happy with the negotiation with the hotel. The owner said we were not making any money. That was his excuse not to sign the contract,” said Guadalupe Perez. During the same time frame other union hotels agreed to increases in wages. On the other hand, the Congress Hotel refused to consider wage increases and pursued cuts instead.
The union still hopes to reach an agreement with the hotel and has proposed wages just below industry standards. Congress Hotel’s lawyer and negotiator, Peter Andjelkovich referred all questions to the legal proceedings against the union and said negotiations do not take place in the press.
Holding the picket line for more than eight years, many of the union members actively campaigned companies and expos to choose other venues. The union boasts of costing the hotel at least $700,000 over the last few years. The figure could actually be closer to $1 million, but the hotel refuses to acknowledge it. At least a dozen companies or events changed locations because of the strike. As a result, the hotel has filed suit alleging secondary activities, an illegal maneuver, by the union.
Univision scheduled a casting call at the Congress Hotel on August 26. Union members actively waged a call-in campaign asking the station to move its event. Upwards of one thousand phone calls were made by nearly 30 people. The four-day campaign of calls worked. Univision relocated to the Marriot.
“It makes us hungry to keep fighting. We have learned different ways to fight and we keep learning,” said Jose Valrado. “We learn to fight this corporation; the way we fight like a few days with Univision. We were like wow!”
When questioned about these activities, Andjelkovich once again referred it to the legal matters at hand. According to legal documents, the hotel is seeking monetary relief from the union stating it “has engaged in illegal secondary boycotting involving its labor dispute with the Congress Plaza Hotel in violation of 29 U.S.C. ’158(b)(4)(ii)(B) by threatening and coercing secondary employers whom Defendant has no dispute in order to entice these employers to stop dealing with the Congress Plaza Hotel”.
Andjelkovich cites seven instances of such activities in the complaint ranging from sending a heart-shaped box filled with cow manure to scientists at AG Labs to applying political pressure to Chris Kennedy during his flirtation with a U.S. Senate run. Kennedy has even been subpoenaed by the hotel’s legal team.
Fighting on the political side, the union tried twice to lobby for an ordinance requiring hotels to notify customers of a strike lasting longer than two weeks. It failed by narrow margins each time. Currently, there is no law on the books requiring notification to customers they would be crossing a picket line.
Comparatively, little about negotiations is available for public viewing. More legal battles find themselves scheduled in the coming months.
“Somebody told me the water cups are just cleaned and put back, not washed properly,” said Perez. “There are a lot of things, but the hotel doesn’t do nothing.”
According to the union’s website, hotel conditions are subpar with numerous complaints of poor service, unkept rooms and rodent droppings. The union says it stopped collecting complaints after fielding hundreds. These allegations were denied by the hotel as completely false.
The hotel has ratings of 3.3 out of five on Orbitz, 3.4 on Hotels.com and 3.7 on Expedia. On each site there are comments referring to poor conditions or the “oldness” of the rooms.
Today, about sixty of the original workers remain on strike. Mercedes Ayvar currently works at another hotel, but maintains her dedication to the strike for the last eight years. “I come to the picket line in the morning, work at the Sheridan and come back afterwards. My husband jokes ‘you don’t wanna be with us anymore.’”
It is a sacrifice of their own time, but is even more stressful on their families. “My little son, if he needs something, he asks my daughter, he knows I don’t have time,” said Lola.
As the days keep passing and more legal briefs are filed, strikers remain optimistic about reaching a resolution that will allow them to return to their old jobs.
“[The hotel owner] doesn’t want to pay anything. We have to keep fighting. Every time it is the same thing but we want to get a contract. We’ve been fighting for eight years. We are not going to give up and say 'alright, we lost',” declared Perez.