CHICAGO - Sixty workers who have been on strike at the Congress Hotel here for eight years were joined June 15 by hundreds of supporters at a rally outside the hotel.
The crowds of community supporters, members of Unite Here, the hotel workers' union and members of many other local unions marked the 8th anniversary of the strike, now the longest hotel strike in U.S. history.
It was on June 15, 2003 that workers at the Congress Hotel went out on strike after the hotel said it was freezing wages until 2010, ceasing payment of healthcare premiums for its workers and initiating a policy of subcontracting out any or all of the work performed by members of Unite Here's Local 1 bargaining unit.
Since that day in 2003 the hotel has never offered a proposal that included any type of wage increase or any change in its policy of not paying health care premiums beyond the amounts that were in place in the contract that expired in 2002.
The last bargaining session was in the summer of 2010.
The union will enter negotiations with the hotel again in early July of this year.
"This fight is my life," said Rene Patino, who was at the demonstration yesterday. He worked at the Congress Hotel for three years before the strike began and has been on strike since then with his wife Maria.
Patino sees sticking it out for all these years as the reason workers at other hotels in Chicago have made gains in recent years.
"If we quit with the strike," he said. "I know that the other hotels would take the same position as the Congress. Wages are still around $8 an hour (at the Congress) and they don't want to have any responsibility to the workers at all."
There are 60 active strikers who continue to picket the hotel day after day, week after week and year after year on bright sunny days and in rain and snow.
A review of gains made by hotel workers elsewhere in Chicago over the past few years shows that Patino's claims about the far-reaching effects of the strike are accurate.
At the time when Congress Hotel workers walked out, Chicago housekeepers were making $8.83 an hour. Today they earn $15.10 per hour.
Patino and the other strikers believe that those gains were made, in part, because the brave band of 60 strikers at the Congress has refused to settle for substandard wages.
The union has publicized the struggle all over the country. "We are determined," said union spokesperson Anne Marie Strassel, "to make sure that hotel jobs are strong family-sustaining jobs. It's why we have taken this fight from the negotiating table out into the streets of Chicago and all over the world."
Unite Here, Local 1 reached citywide agreements recently with Starwood Hotels and Hilton. The settlements reached thus far resolve all hotel contract disputes in Chicago except those with the Congress and Hyatt hotels.
Photo: Hotel strikers at 8th anniversary rally. UNITE HERE Local 1