Strike yields travel advisories at downtown Chicago hotel

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 ’  
   any
time soon, you may run
across warnings about
rates at one hotel on
Michigan Avenue overlooking
Grant Park.
Accommodations at the
580-room hotel are renting at winter prices
– $99 a night, compared to twice that in a
comparable downtown hotel – or rather,
the rooms are not renting, for the most
part. All because the hotel tried to squeeze
sixty cents out of the folks that clean the
rooms and cook the food.
Hundreds of customers have turned
away after they arrived and discovered a
picket line in front of the hotel. Many
more have walked out within the first hour
after seeing the state of the hotel from the
inside. Unknown and unknowable numbers
have simply booked elsewhere when
they heard the news. Big weddings and
reunions, some worth as much as $35,000,
are canceling left and right. The hotel is
estimated to have lost hundreds of thousands
of dollars this summer.
And now three of the biggest Internet
booking sites have posted travel advisories
for the Congress Plaza Hotel, following a
flood of customer complaints related to a
summer-long strike by hotel employees.
During the strike the hotel has kept
going with a skeleton crew of replacement
workers from area temp agencies – a practice
that will be illegal in the State of Illinois
when a new law takes effect in January.
After that, employers will have to round up
their own scabs.
But it isn’t just about defending unions.
“There are several reasons the customers
would be upset,” says Jennie Busch of
Chicago Jobs with Justice (JWJ). “Obviously
they have to make a decision about
crossing a picket line, which is ideological.
But also there are issues of service.”
Busch, who works with Chicago JWJ’s
Day Laborer Organizing Committee, says
the hotel is essentially “hiring professional
strikebreakers.” This practice, she says, prolongs
the strike. And that’s not all. Community
groups like the Chicago Coalition
of the Homeless and ACORN (Association
of Community Organizations for Reform
Now) are also concerned about the replacement
workers, many of whom are very
poor or even homeless. “It’s risky for the
temps,” says Busch.
Temp workers sent in
to break a strike normally
face the possibility of
many kinds of abuses
ranging from wage and
hour violations to health
and safety hazards. In
this case, says Busch,
“especially cleanliness
issues.” Witness the
customer complaints.
“A room service tray sat outside our
door for nearly two days with leftover food
“Not well maintained. Escalators and
elevators didn’t work. It looks like a hotel
that is about to be shut down.”
“A dirty, stinking hotel with no customer
These are all from customers who
booked online this summer, unaware that
the workers at the Congress Plaza Hotel
have been on strike since June 15. There
has not been a strike at a downtown Chicago
hotel in decades.
The 130 workers belong to Hotel
Employees and Restaurant Employees
(HERE) Local 1, a member-run union that
last year stood up to and beat a hotel management
association representing 27 downtown
Chicago hotels. Local 1 threatened to
strike then, but the hotels blinked first and
agreed to raise wages to $10.00 an hour.
But when the union contract at the
Congress expired, its out-of-town owner –
a wealthy clothing importer named Albert
Nasser, whose Gelmart Industries supplies
Wal-Mart among others – refused to keep
pace with these increases. In May management
cut pay by seven percent to $8.21.
The housekeepers, telephone operators,
restaurant employees and others then
voted, by a 90 percent margin, to strike
until Nasser agreed to pay – even if it
meant forcing him to
sell or shut down the
“It’s like when Moses
went against Pharaoh,”
says Sharon Williams, a
phone operator for
eight years at the Congress.
“Pharaoh did
everything he possibly
could to them, and still
they won. And just like Moses, the workers
at the Congress hotel will be out one day
longer than the boss.”
Other strikers seem to feel the same.
Pickets have been up almost without a
break straight through heat-stroke season,
in pouring rain, in winds that seemed on
the verge of tearing up trees by the roots.
The one exception was when the union
briefly called off the midnight shift, but the
strikers soon insisted that the picket line
must be active round the clock.
Large rallies in support of the strikers
have also punctuated the struggle all summer.
On July 12, hundreds of religious
leaders and other supporters re-enacted the
biblical tale of the fall of Jericho, marching
with strikers around the entire hotel
grounds seven times and finally blowing a
trumpet. The walls did not come tumbling
On August 9, the mostly-immigrant
strikers joined with about 1,000 supporters
in an “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride”
at a nearby theater. After that event, supporters
marched back to the hotel and
around the block again.
Workers from the other 27 union hotels,
the ones that got their deal last year, have
been out in force to walk the line with the
Congress strikers, as have supporters from
other unions – Service Employees Industrial
Union Local 1, UNITE! and others. Earlier
in the summer there was a fair amount
of media attention. Presidential candidates
Carol Moseley-Braun, Dennis
Kucinich and Howard Dean have been out
to speak with strikers. But by August the
media had moved on to other topics.
Then on Labor Day, unions and other
community groups joined Local 1 in civil
disobedience in front of the Congress.
Hundreds turned out in a driving rain.
Twenty linked arms and sat down in the
middle of Michigan Avenue traffic and
were arrested. Local TV, radio and
newsprint were suddenly interested all over
again. The strikers are hoping that the word
will continue to spread and that the hotel’s
drooping clientele will sink even farther.
“It really boosted the strike,” says HERE
spokesperson Lars Negstad.
Still, no one expects the strike to be over
any time soon. And being out of a job is
hard on the workers, but the union has
been helping them find part-time work at
other hotels to supplement their strike pay.
“I’m not worried about it,” says
Williams. “I know that this is right, and I
put my trust in Go The workers walking
the line are a strong force.”
For more customer complaints or to
help out, see www.congresshotelstrike.

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