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Protesters block traffic as

Chicago hotel strike marks one year

Special to Workers World
Chicago

With a roar of approval from more than 1,000 demonstrators, 15 people--striking workers at Chicago's Congress Plaza Hotel and their supporters--blocked Michigan Avenue during rush hour on June 15 before being hauled off by the police. Workers at the hotel have been on strike for a year now. Their walkout is believed to be the first ever at a downtown Chicago hotel.

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

"We talk a lot here about how we can help each other," said striker Alicia Rodriguez, 32, a housekeeping worker for 10 years. (Chicago Tribune, June 14)

"The Congress Hotel is a rogue employer with no respect for its workers, its customers or the Chicago community," said Henry Tamarin, president of Local 1 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), who was one of those arrested.

The walkout by 130 courageous housekeepers, pantry workers, telephone operators, bartenders and bell persons--most of whom are women and Latin@--began last June. The workers went on strike after the hotel's wealthy owners refused to agree to the terms of a 2002 citywide contract that raised wages and benefits at 27 other hotels throughout Chicago.

Instead, the greedy Congress bosses proposed a 7-percent wage cut and no raises for the life of the contract. They also refused to increase health and welfare payments (effectively eliminating health and pension benefits) and tried to gut job security by demanding the unlimited right to subcontract any worker's job.

Finally, the owners tried to impose their last offer on the workers--a violation of federal labor law for which they are now on trial before the National Labor Rela tions Board. Meanwhile, in December 2003 the hotel was charged with 68 categories of building code violations by the City of Chicago.

Fighting a global empire

"The union is demanding a five-star hotel rate contract, when we're not getting $400 a night for our rooms," claimed hotel mouthpiece Peter Andjelkovich. (Chicago Sun-Times, June 11)

In reality, the owners of the 850-bed Congress Plaza--the fifth-largest hotel in downtown Chicago--are global billionaires. Albert Nasser, a key investor in the limited partnership that owns the hotel, is also CEO and chair of Gelmart Industries, a major manufacturer of women's undergarments. The owners want to wring profits from hotel workers just like they super-exploit similar workers abroad. But this also makes them vulnerable to cross-border labor organizing.

In a heroic show of international solidarity, Gelmart workers in the Philippines staged a July 2003 demonstration in solidarity with their striking sisters and brothers at the Congress Plaza Hotel. In March 2004, a solidarity delegation from HERE Local 1 visited Gelmart's factory in the Philippines and issued a stinging report on labor violations there.

Workers at Gelmart's Philippine subcontractors say they make less than $4 a day, are given impossibly high "quotas," and lose a day's pay if they don't reach them in eight hours. They are also forced to clock out at 5 p.m. even when they work overnight until 8 a.m. Many workers complain of urinary tract infections because they are afraid to take bathroom breaks for fear of falling below the quota.

"[Our] report shows that Nasser's abusive business practices literally span the globe," said HERE General President John Wilhelm, who was in Chicago for the strike anniversary rally.

A bargaining session is scheduled for June 28. The union wants supporters to swamp management with calls and messages demanding "Justice for the Con gress Plaza Hotel strikers." It asks support ers to call (800) 635-1666 or (312) 427-3800 and demand to speak with owner representative Shlomo Mahmias or someone in management.

Details about making donations to the strike fund can be found at www.congresshotelstrike.info.

Reprinted from the July 1, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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