2 weeks ago
Text by Zachary Siegel
Chicago’s massive hotel worker strike has taken a toll on downtown restaurants, as cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, and servers employed at 26 Chicago hotels picket for hours on end alongside housekeepers and bellhops. Yesterday afternoon, the sixth consecutive day of strikes, some 3,000 workers and their allies crammed into Ogden Plaza across the Sheraton Grand, waving signs and shouting over drums and whistles.
“We are the face of this city,” says Angel Castillo, organizing director for UNITE HERE Local 1, the union representing the workers. “[Tourists] get served by your servers, and bussers, and runners, and bartenders. We deserve better.”
According to Crain’s, it’s the first strike in the city’s history to include all hotel workers, not just housekeepers and bellhops. Over 3,000 employees at 25 hotels voted overwhelmingly in favor of the strike two weeks before their annual contracts ended on August 31. Within the last week, the number of downtown hotels bumped up to 26 and the number of employees striking has ballooned to over 6,000. (A full list of striking hotels can be found at Unite Here’s website.)
Striking staffers are demanding guarantees of year-round health insurance and more manageable workloads, and their absence in hotels has caused room service and other food options to come to a grinding halt. While restaurants that operate independently of the hotel in which they’re located have seen a slight bump in business, a number of hotel restaurants have had to adjust their usual routines.
Some are coping with the work stoppage by serving up small bites and limited menus to keep guests happy, while others have closed indefinitely. Among the shuttered: Shula’s Steak House and Chicago Burger Company in the Sheraton Grand Chicago, and Sixes & Eights in the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, as the Chicago Tribune reported.
Nearer to the Loop, business is continuing more smoothly at the JW Marriott Chicago. “All three of our dining options on-property at JW Marriott Chicago are open including the Florentine, in-room dining, and The Lobby Lounge,” says Steve Conklin, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. On Wednesday, a hostess at The Florentine told the Chicago Tribune that the restaurant was extra busy because the hotel was not offering any room service.
“Guests are fully understanding of what’s going on,” says Gil Eggert, a manager at The Florentine. “We’ve been busy, staying very busy, and everything’s going fine, except for the strike.”
For Rudy Nava, a 29-year-old server at Third Star located in the Hyatt Regency at McCormick Place, health care is non-negotiable. “I have to provide for my kids,” he says. “The school year is just beginning, and it’s a little stressful not being able to provide as good as I’m able to.”
Nava and his co-workers are receiving “strike pay” while they picket, which can be as little as a couple hundred dollars a week. Nava, who lives on the West Side, says the pay cut is worth the sacrifice. Years ago during winter, while working in room service, he thought he had the flu. He had no insurance at the time and tried to ride it out. But his family urged him to go to the hospital, and his uncle promised to cover the medical bills.
“Lo and behold, they diagnosed me with pneumonia, and wondered why I hadn’t come in for help sooner,” he says. When he told the hospital he didn’t have insurance, they told him they would cover it if he opted into an experimental procedure. The pill helped heal his damaged lungs, but it also gave him a heart attack.
“I remember taking the pill and then waking up and being told I had cardiac arrest,” he says. Nava doesn’t want to have to go through something like that ever again — nor have his colleagues risk experiencing something similar. “This is a fight we can’t afford to lose,” he says. He adds that he’s a little anxious over not being paid, but is overall feeling confident about the strike.
At the march on Thursday, Castillo said managers might benefit from stepping in the shoes of hotel workers, experiencing how physically demanding their work really is. Despite the commotion at their doors, hotel representatives continue to paint a rosy picture of the strike’s impact, while guests have complained of eight-hour check-ins, buffet-style food service, and unclean, poorly stocked rooms.
“We respect our employees’ right to engage in concerted activity, and our restaurants will continue to provide service to diners during the strike,” says a spokesperson for Kimpton Hotels, which includes restaurants like Sable Kitchen & Bar and Fisk & Co.
Multiple calls to Torali Italian-Steak located inside the Ritz Carlton went unanswered on Friday morning. The Chicago Tribune reported Torali is closed for dinner, and offering limited menus for breakfast and lunch.
Though the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to labor unions on the national stage, Chicago workers have had local successes. For example, hotel workers recently won protections against sexual harassment and assault. Restaurant workers at O’Hare Airport walked off the job last December. After the massive march on Thursday, Lyons says morale is up and that picketers feel strong.
Michael D’Angelo, Hyatt’s vice president of labor relations, says the union is currently reviewing Hyatt’s response proposal. Since the union negotiates with each of the 26 hotels separately, the strategy for workers is to get the biggest employer at the table, with the hope that smaller ones will follow suit. Lyons emphasizes that workers are not backing down.
As for when the strike will end, that’s a question that Bob Reiter, president of Chicago Federation of Labor, says people keep asking him. His response: “Go ask the hotels.”
Additonal reporting by Aaron Cynic.
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