Congress Hotel Strike

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

For the last five years from 6 am to 9pm, anyone walking down Michigan Avenue could count on encountering what has become a familiar sight for Chicagoans: strikers from UNITE HERE Local 1picketing outside of the Congress Hotel. But in recent months those picketers have been missing from the scene. The change doesn’t herald a victory or loss in what is currently the longest running strike in the U.S., but rather a shift in tactics that might just win justice for the Congress workers.

The Congress Hotel strike began in 2002, when the Congress’ owners broke away from the hotel association that was negotiating contracts with UNITE HERE. The hotel owners chose to bargain directly with the union, offering workers a contract that slashed benefits and paid only $8.83 per hour, more than 26% less than the industry standard for Chicago. In 2003, workers at the Congress voted unanimously to strike. In the five years that followed, little changed; workers continued to walk the picket line in front of the entrance every day, joined on occasion by other unions, political figures (Barack Obama famously walked the picket line during the presidential campaign), and the occasional mass rally to mark the passage of another year. The Congress refused to budge from their initial offer even as wages increased at Hotels across the city. Meanwhile the hotel suffered a steady decline, as cleanliness and service deteriorated and the pressure from the strike drove occupancy below 30%.

In January of this year, six months after the fifth anniversary of the strike, and just weeks after workers at the Republic Windows and Doors won back wages and benefits by occupying their factory, workers and organizers at UNITE HERE knew that something had to give.

“The economy is pretty bad, and it’s winter. In winter in Chicago the hotels are really slow. So we thought that picketing from 6 am to 9 pm in front of an empty hotel was kind of, I mean there’s some point to it but it wasn’t the most effective use of our time,” explains Jessica Lawlor, UNITE HERE Research Analyst and Boycott Coordinator. “And it’s kind of what people have come to expect of us, and [The Congress] can handle it. I think it was time for us to really get the strike out there in a way that it hasn’t been for a really long time.”

In addition to the picket line, UNITE HERE had been running a boycott campaign during the course of the strike, pressuring companies, conventions, and individuals not to do business with the Congress. As part of their boycott strategy, they would send a couple of workers out once or twice a week to talk to patrons of the hotel. But in February the union decided to up the ante significantly, pulling all the workers off the picket line and sending large delegations of strikers out, twice a day, five days a week to pressure politicians, universities, convention planners, and business networks to support the strike. They are showing up in offices and restaurants across the city, with information and cellphones in hand and demanding that owners, managers and conference planners make the call to cancel events at the Congress.

The new tactic has been enormously successful. “Since we started doing more delegations, since mid-January, we’ve pulled more than $400,000 worth of business from the Congress,” explains Lawlor. “We weren’t really counting how much we had pulled before then. It was in the $1-2 million range. So to pull almost half a million dollars worth of business from the Congress in three weeks was a huge victory.”

The escalating inter-union war between UNITE-HERE and SEIU has also added to the pressure to win a victory soon for the strikers. In March fliers appeared in Local 1 workplaces accusing the union of wasting members’ money supporting the long strike. There is concern that if SEIU succeeds in splitting the union, the strike funds that support the workers may be cut off.

The worker delegations have not only hurt the Congress, but they have strengthened the union at the same time. “On the picket line, we were just walking and waiting for the union leaders to come and tell us what was going on,” explains Elizabeth Martinez, one of the Congress strikers. “But now we are doing this for our selves, and it’s a lot better. We understand what’s happening—that the advances are being won by us.” Striker Nazario Avalos is equally enthusiastic about the new tactic. “The delegations are important because after five years on the picket line, nobody saw us, and nobody wanted to support us. But it seems like the delegations are working better. They’re damaging the hotel. We’re taking away conventions and parties.”

That doesn’t mean that the new strategy hasn’t met with resistance. The worker delegations are going after not only the big fish, like convention planners and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, but also smaller targets, like local restaurants who are members of the National Restaurant Association, which continues to book rooms for their national conference at the hotel. The workers hope that by showing up to the restaurants day after day, week after week, they can convince owners and managers to call the association and ask them to cancel the rooms, if only to end the annoyance. And although delegation targets have refused to meet with them, threatened to call the cops, and even ripped up materials in front of the strikers, they’re also winning results that a traditional strike couldn’t.

“Personally I think (and this is my own personal view) that labor law in this country is not benefiting workers as much as it should be,” explains UNITE HERE Senior Research Analyst Jennifer Blatz. “So following the by the book rules of what you do on a strike is not going to win the strike. Especially when we’re almost at the six year anniversary and it’s clear that picketing, not blocking the entrance, following the rules, isn’t going to win the strike. So I think thinking creatively in terms of using the First Amendment and just communicating and educating people about the strike, is, well it’s making people uncomfortable, but is totally within our rights as Americans.”

That the Congress strikers chose to escalate their tactics so soon after the Republic victory is not a coincidence. Not only are both unions made up primarily of immigrants, many of whom come from countries with a long history of militant labor struggle, but some of the workers even come from the same families. Lawlor’s face lights up at the mention of the Republic occupation, and she explains that, “a couple of the strikers are related to people who occupied the factory. So it was this moment where Augustina’s husband and someone else’s sister were occupying their factory over there, and we’ve been on strike for five years, and it’s just clear what the new labor movement is. It’s not sitting back and taking what people hand to you, like a layoff and or saying that you can picket at these hours and you can use your bullhorn at this time. It’s really moving forward and thinking outside of the box and being creative with what you’re doing.” ◊


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