Workers at 25 hotels in downtown Chicago went on strike Friday to demand year-round health care as they negotiate new contracts, marking the first time their union has called a citywide hotel strike.
UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents more than 15,000 hospitality workers across the Chicago area, said “thousands” of housekeepers, doormen, cooks and other hotel employees have stopped working. They will be picketing around-the-clock at all 25 hotels until an agreement is reached, said spokeswoman Sarah Lyons.
Affected hotels include the Hyatt Regency, Sheraton Grand, JW Marriott and Hilton Chicago. A complete list is at chicagohotelstrike.org.
Collective bargaining agreements at 30 hotels expired Aug. 31, and the union began threatening a strike weeks beforehand. There are 6,000 employees covered by the expired contracts, Lyons said.
Each hotel brand negotiates separately with the union.
Dozens of chanting workers with picket signs and noisemakers walked the strike line in front of the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop on Friday morning, erupting into cheers as passing cars and trucks honked in solidarity. One woman stood in the center banging a pot with a spatula.
A line of red tape on the sidewalk separated the picketers from the hotel entrance, allowing guests to enter and exit with relative ease.
Tina Graham, who has been cleaning rooms at the Palmer House for 11 years, said employees are striking for year-round health insurance. When the hotel gets slow, typically from October through March, many employees get laid off and lose their health insurance until they return to work when the weather warms, she said.
“It’s terrible. You can’t go see a doctor and you have ailments from working here, cleaning 16 rooms a shift,” said Graham, 60. She pulled out a carton that holds her arthritis pain relief medication and the cold/hot patches she puts on her back; she said she got rotator cuff surgery because of the repetitive motions from the job. Accidents are common as room attendants rush to get each room cleaned within half an hour, she added.
“People aren’t aware of the stress that goes on in there,” she said. Though Graham has enough seniority that she keeps working through the slow winter months, she says at least 90 housekeepers get laid off annually.
Graham, who earns $20 an hour, said she loves her job otherwise. With many of her colleagues on the strike line, Graham said she wasn’t sure how the hotel was managing.
“I don’t know how they are doing those rooms,” she said, “but it has to be pretty ugly in there.” The historic Palmer House has more than 1,600 rooms.
Paul Ades, senior vice president for labor relations at Hilton, said the strike will have “minimal impact” on operations. In addition to the Palmer House, the Hilton hotels where workers are striking include the DoubleTree Magnificent Mile, Hilton Chicago and the Drake hotel.
“We continue to provide the service and amenities we are proud to offer our guests and clients every day,” Ades said in a statement. “We are negotiating with the union in good faith and are confident that we will reach an agreement that is fair to our valued team members and to our hotels.”
It was “all hands on deck” at the Sheraton Grand Chicago on Friday morning, with executives pitching in to cover duties usually handled by the striking workers, according to one executive.
Mark Lauer, general manager of the Sheraton Grand, declined to comment beyond a statement issued by the hotel’s parent company, Marriott International.
Marriott’s statement addressed the striking workers at six of its Chicago hotels, including the Westin River North, Westin Michigan Avenue, W Chicago Lakeshore, W Chicago City Center, JW Marriott and the Sheraton.
“We are disappointed to learn that UNITE HERE Local 1 has chosen to resort to a strike at this time,” the company said. “There is nothing about the current state of the negotiations or the long-standing and productive bargaining relationship between Marriott International and UNITE HERE that suggests that a strike is warranted or necessary. The parties are not at an impasse on any issue.”
The union is still in the process of making its initial bargaining proposal, it said, and the hotel continues to be available to bargain in good faith.
“In the meantime, our hotels are open, and we stand ready to provide excellent service to our guests,” the company statement said. “While we respect our associates’ rights to participate in this work stoppage, we also will welcome any associate who chooses to continue to work.”
Hyatt said it just last week completed its second negotiation meeting the union, which provided multiple proposals for the first time. More sessions are scheduled throughout September.
“Our colleagues are the heart of our business, and we respect their right to voice their opinions as the negotiations with the union continue,” said Michael D’Angelo, Hyatt’s vice president of labor relations for the Americas. “Hyatt hotels have plans in place to continue operations.”
The strike comes amid a busy summer for Chicago’s hotel industry, which has enjoyed a rise in visitors over the past several years.
Hotels in Chicago’s central business district reported $1.45 billion in room revenue from January through July, up 10.4 percent from the same period last year, according to hotel data specialist STR.
It also comes the same week more than a dozen big hotel chains — including Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt — announced they would provide personal safety devices by 2020 to all employees who deal one-on-one with guests, to protect them harassment and assault. That announcement followed the enactment of panic button laws in a handful of cities, including Chicago, which as of July 1 has required all hotels in the city to provide panic buttons to housekeepers. That law was pushed by UNITE HERE Local 1.
Roushaunda Williams, 50, who has worked as a bartender at the Palmer House for 18 years, said the energy on the first morning of the strike was “amazing.”
“Everybody understands what’s at stake and we feel that by being together we can uplift each other, we can empower each other to make sure that the company hears our demands and gives us he respect that we deserve,” she said.