PI Original Adam Doster Wednesday May 26th, 2010, 12:51pm

Hyatt Workers Stage Walk-Out As Contract Fight Heats Up (VIDEO)

A dramatic "wildcat" walk-out at the Hyatt Regency Chicago proves UNITE-HERE Local 1 members aren't giving up their fight for workplace fairness.

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The fight over wages and workload between Chicago's hospitality employees and the city's giant hotel chains is heating back up.

At the Hyatt Regency Chicago earlier this morning, hundreds of UNITE-HERE Local 1 members staged a dramatic, "wildcat" walk-out, clogging the sidewalks outside the massive downtown hotel. At issue are several complaints on the part of the labor force, chief among them an increase in workload for the housekeeping staff following the renovation of the Hyatt's West Tower. In addition, the hotel recently added new, heavier beds and thicker carpet to the rooms in that tower, which staffers say make it harder to keep up their pace and have caused injuries on the job. Last week, the hotel's management also barred union organizers from entering the building.

Donica Steed, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency, explains her colleague's frustration:

Looming over today's strike is the ongoing contract negotiations between UNITE-HERE and 30 downtown hotels. The union's 6,000 members have unprotected by a contract since September of last year, the longest stretch hotel employees have gone without one in recent memory. Local 1 communications director Annemarie Strassel said officials from both sides met roughly two weeks ago, but little was accomplished. The hotel operators are still asking for cutbacks in salary and benefits, citing diminished tourism because of the economic recession. The union counters that their demands -- small wage and benefit increases as well as protections against forced overtime and layoffs -- are reasonable. Plus, the union generally signs multi-year contracts. Cutting now assumes that business will continue to suffer beyond 2010, a projection the union rejects. Tourism professionals across the country, for example, are optimistic that the summer season will be busier than last year.

The hotel penned a letter to guests this morning, obtained by the Tribune. "We are disappointed that the union, rather than continuing to negotiate during the worst economic crisis in a generation, has engaged in a work stoppage at our hotel," the statement read. Since Hyatt went public last November, stock prices have jumped 55 percent.

Local 1 President Henry Tamarin rallied his members on the steps of the hotel today, characterizing Hyatt as the "big bad bully on the block." Watch:

If progress isn't made on a contract in the near future, the union could escalate its tactics quickly. Employees at five area hotels run by the Starwood Chain -- the Westin Michigan Avenue, the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, the W Lakeshore, the W, and the Tremont Hotel -- authorized a strike last fall.  Stay tuned.

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