The contract covers more than 7,000 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) locals 1 and 450 at 23 downtown and four suburban hotels.
Wanda Gilbert, a housekeeper for 16 years at Quality Inn, was one of those who voted for the contract. Although the workers did not strike, Gilbert said she believed they made gains because of their high level of organization as the union prepared to strike if necessary. The owners knew the workers were serious.
Gilbert and a younger co-worker, Chris Jefferson, were part of a committee of 500 workers who organized within each hotel. "It was a battle," she said. The "warriors" on the committee, like Jefferson, worked hard to win over every worker to be part of the fight.
A high point of the campaign for a better contract was an August 23 march downtown along Chicago’s "Magnificent Mile" on Michigan Avenue that drew thousands of hotel workers.
On August 12 more than 4,000 HERE members had turned out for meetings, in which 98 percent voted to authorize a strike if a contract was not finalized by midnight on August 31.
Engineering, maintenance, truck driving, laundry, and electrical workers unions pledged to honor the hotel workers’ picket lines if a strike was called. The Teamsters provided a warehouse for the HERE food bank, "Hungry for Justice."
Other unions, as well as immigrant rights groups and churches offered support. The union made plans to reach out to workers to convince them not to cross picket lines.
When the negotiations stalemated, Dennis Gannon, head of the Chicago Federation of Labor, called on Illinois governor George Ryan to intervene in the labor dispute. Ryan went to the HERE headquarters where preparations were being made to announce a strike starting at midnight. Ryan asked the union officials to consider the negative impact a strike would have on what he called the state’s "fragile" economy. He then moved the negotiations to his office and got the union negotiating committee to continue talks past the strike deadline. He urged a settlement before the opening in a few days of the International Manufacturing Technology Show, which was expected to draw 120,000 visitors and $221 million in revenues.
HERE officials, as well as many workers on the bargaining committee, applauded Ryan’s intervention. But there was also sentiment among some hotel workers in opposition to what they considered a short-circuiting of the opportunity to bring their power to bear in a strike and come closer to wage parity with hotel workers in other major cities.
Housekeeping workers in Chicago, for example, have been paid $8.83 an hour compared to more than $18 an hour in New York City, where workers’ medical insurance is fully paid by the hotel owners.
Francine Johnson, a housekeeper at a Holiday Inn, expressed the letdown many workers felt: "We set a deadline of Saturday, August 31. The union had taken the stand that if we didn’t have a contract by then we were going to strike. I was disappointed when we kept working past that deadline. We were so prepared to strike, so ready. If we had gone out, we could have won more than we got."
Javier, who works in the kitchen at Holiday Inn, added, "We wanted to show them what we could do by going on strike."
Another worker at the Drake put it this way: "When I went in to work Sunday, [September 1] I had an attitude. We shouldn’t have been working past that strike deadline."
Chessie Molano is a member of UNITE and the Socialist Workers candidate for lieutenant governor of Illinois.
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