On Friday, outside the front doors of the Congress Plaza Hotel, a group of striking hotel workers were joined by hundreds of supporters marching in a noisy picket line to mark the ninth anniversary of the nation's longest-running strike.
Megaphone-enhanced shouts of "No Contract, No Peace" were nearly drowned out by the clickety-clack of plastic noisemakers as members of UniteHere! Local 1 continued on their 3,288th day of protesting a lack of wage and benefit increases for the hotel's staff.
The striking hospitality workers said the Congress Hotel’s management froze wages back in 2003 just before the strike began. They claim the hotel has refused to pay employee health care premiums and has since turned to subcontractors to replace the striking workers. There have been ongoing attempts to renegotiate the contract, but none have been successful.
“Last time we talked with the company was last summer and they offered us another ten cents an hour. That’s ridiculous. Right now, the cost of life is too much higher,” said Efrain Cortina, who was part of the original group of workers that started the strike.
Cortina said he and other workers have marched in front of the hotel everyday for the past nine years on a rotating schedule. He said he would go back to working for the hotel if they offered a raise of even 75 cents-an-hour raise plus benefit increases.
“The food, the rent, the gas, the lights. Everything is going up. Only this hotel in Chicago pays the minimum wage,” Cortina said.
Meanwhile, the hotel’s management said it has been willing to negotiate, but the union’s demands are “unreasonable and excessive.” Management has criticized the union’s tactics as being vulgar, and included shouting threats and profanity at workers who’ve crossed the picket line, and harassment of the hotel’s guests.
While Progress Illinois placed multiple phone calls with the hotel’s chief negotiator and attorney Peter Andjelkovich, a spokesperson from his office said he was “too busy” to answer questions and instead sent out an official statement, which can be downloaded here.
Here’s a section of the statement: "Instead of negotiating at the bargaining table, the Union continues to organize boycott activities, protests, demonstrations, and parades. Unfortunately, the Union has failed to recognize that these types of harassment and intimidation techniques have failed to result in a collective bargaining agreement."
Management has also pointed to the costs of repairing and maintaining the 100 year-old hotel, which they say are “ongoing and expensive.”
Father Larry Dowling of St. Agatha Parish in North Lawndale has come out to support the striking workers since 2003. Dowling said he doesn’t agree with using maintenance costs as justification for not increasing worker’s wages.
“Every other hotel, except for the Hyatt, in Chicago is paying a just wage,” Dowling said. “They managed to do it. There’s no reason the Congress can’t do it. Congress has the money.”
The hospitality union contract is set to expire in June 2013.
Here is more from Friday's action, observing the nine-year mark for the strike: