Massive rally marks strike anniversary

CHICAGO – Shouting “No contract, No peace,” Congress Hotel workers and their supporters marked the one-year anniversary of their strike against the hotel June 15 with a massive picket line and rally. The protest jammed the sidewalk for a block in front of the hotel.

To dramatize their determination, 15 workers, labor leaders, clergy and elected officials were arrested when they blocked traffic on Michigan Avenue. As they were being arrested a giant banner was unfurled from a upper hotel floor window declaring, “Justice now!”

“We are here with one goal – to stay together and not go inside. We are not rats and are not giving in for (the hotel owner’s) cheese,” declared strike leader Leticia Cortina, pointing to the giant inflatable rat that cast a shadow over the crowd. “The owner is the rat. We’ll be here for as a long as it takes.”

The strike began after owners of the Congress Hotel refused to recognize the pattern agreement covering nearly all downtown union hotels signed between a hotel owners association and the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union Local 1 in August 2002. The agreement won major wage and benefit increases for hotel workers, but Congress owners withdrew from the association and refused to recognize it.

The Congress Hotel contract with its workers expired and after several months of negotiating, the hotel unilaterally imposed a 7 percent wage cut with no raises, the elimination of family health insurance and pension benefits and threatened to outsource union jobs. This prompted the 130 workers to go on strike.

“The Congress Hotel is a rogue employer with no respect for its workers,” said Henry Tamarin, president of HERE Local 1. “After a year on strike, this once-grand hotel is now an embarrassment to the city’s hotel industry.”

HERE National President John Wilhelm, who joined the strikers and was one of those arrested, said the union would not permit any hotel from undercutting the master agreement. “If we allowed one employer to get away with lowering the standards, then there won’t be any.” The Congress Hotel is the fifth largest hotel in downtown Chicago.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon pointed out the broad support for the strike as he acknowledged the large contingent from the AFL-CIO Organizers Conference representing many international unions, the Interfaith Committee on Workers Issues, Chicago Jobs with Justice, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the many clergy and community organizations present.

“The strikers have given up a year of their lives for this struggle. They have tremendous courage,” said Gannon, who praised the determination of the workers to maintain the picket lines, especially through the cold winter months.

State Sen. Martin Sandoval said the experience of his family was similar to that of many of the Congress Hotel workers, a majority of whom are Latino immigrants. Sandoval’s parents came to Chicago from Mexico in the early 1960s and were deported. They returned and raised their family under great difficulties.

“The poor shall inherit the earth. I am on the side of the Congress Hotel strikers. I am on the side of working poor. Si se puede!” declared Sandoval.

“A year is a long time to be on strike,” said striker Sharon Williams. “But we’re going to be out here as long as it takes to win justice for ourselves and our families.”

The author can be reached at jbachtell@rednet.org.