Congress Hotel strike becomes longest in U.S. history

Strikers at 7th Anniversary of Congress Hotel Strike
Jennifer Rice photo
Strikers at Chicago’s Congress Hotel strike rally outside the hotel June 14 to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the strike, now the longest strike in American history. Supporters came to listen to community members, members of UNITE HERE Local 1 and keynote speaker Congressman Luis Gutierrez gave recognition to the strikers who are immigrants to the United States and honored them for their struggle to lift job standards for all workers in the Chicago hospitality industry. He called for both an end to the strike at the Congress Hotel and for immigration reform in the United States.

By David Weese
Staff Writer

On June 14, strikers at the Congress Hotel in Chicago were joined by many labor leaders, members of the faith-based community and other members of the community to mark the seventh anniversary of the strike, which has become the longest hotel strike in American history.
The strike began back in 2003, after hotel management announced that they were freezing wages until 2010, and would not pay anything towards their employees’ health care premiums, which basically eliminated health care benefits for its employees. Management also reserved the right to subcontract all bargaining unit work, effectively leaving the union powerless.
The union has met with the hotel’s management on a regular basis ever since, but talks have proved fruitless. UNITE HERE Local 1 spokesperson Annemarie Strassel said, “We meet annually to ‘negotiate’ but it’s a farce, since they haven’t budged a penny on any of their proposals since we began meeting in 2002, with the exception of pension contributions oddly enough. But in terms of wages, health care contributions, and even the unlimited right to subcontract jobs (thus eliminating the union altogether), they have been completely intransigent.”
At the rally, Henry Tamarin, President of UNITE HERE Local 1 said, “I wish that we could get this owner to do anything that was fair. In the seven years we’ve been out here, they haven’t put one extra penny onto their wage proposal. Not a penny. Since we went out on strike in 2003, the room attendants made $8.83 per hour. They still make $8.83 per hour. Union and non-union alike make at least $14.60 per hour.”
A statement put out by Local 1 said, “Since the strike began, the Congress Hotel has lost millions of dollars of business. UNITE HERE Local 1 has collected over 1,200 customer complaints, including poor service and deteriorating conditions, like broken elevators, blocked fire exits, peeling paint, crumbling plaster, exposed wiring, dirty and/or wet linens, insect infestation, rodent poison and rodent droppings.”
The strike has gone on all this time with about 60 striking workers who are still active on the picket lines. The strike has gained the support of many organizations and groups. Barack Obama even visited the picket lines back in 2003.
In 2009, Governor Pat Quinn addressed the crowd commemorating the sixth anniversary of the strike. He said, “This hotel hasn’t treated its workers right. It hasn’t paid a decent wage. It doesn’t believe in decent health care, and we’ve got to make sure that the people of Illinois, in the land of Lincoln, believe in the workers of Illinois. Early to bed. Early to rise. Work like hell and organize.
“The people of Illinois believe in a hard work and a decent wage for a hard day’s work, and that’s exactly the principle of this strike, and that will remain the principle for all the people of Illinois until justice is done, and we will have justice,” Quinn said.
Quinn said in 2009 that it’s important that every hotel in Illinois treat its workers right. “We want everyone in the world to know that the hard-working people of Illinois come first before profits and before the kind of behavior we’ve seen by this hotel in recent years. The people of Illinois see the men and women who have labored here who aren’t getting a fair wage and decent health care. They’re indispensable. In our country, we can’t go anywhere without people on the front lines, and that’s what the people of the Congress Hotel are. As long as we can’t get a fair wage and fair working conditions and a fair agreement from this hotel, we’ll continue to walk outside this hotel until that day is here.”
Also represented at the June 14 rally were the Laborers Union, AFSCME, SEIU Local 73, the Teamsters, UNITE HERE Local 450, the Motion Picture Projectionists, Jobs with Justice and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, along with UNITE HERE Local 1.

New CFL President Jorge Ramirez
Jennifer Rice photo
Chicago’s Federation of Labor President, Jorge Ramirez, speaks to a crowd June 14 during the 7th anniversary of the Congress Hotel strike. Supporters came to listen to community members, members of UNITE HERE Local 1 and keynote speaker Congressman Luis Gutierrez gave recognition to the strikers who are immigrants to the United States and honored them for their struggle to lift job standards for all workers in the Chicago hospitality industry. He called for both an end to the strike at the Congress Hotel and for immigration reform in the United States.

New Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) President Jorge Ramirez made his first public appearance at the rally as the CFL’s new chief. He said, “I look out into this crowd, and it’s not just labor folks that I see out here, it’s our community partners, our elected officials and our religious and faith-based leaders, and that’s what’s happened here. These workers found out that if they stick together, they can make this fight about everybody, about our community, and that’s what’s happened. They’ve got this fight going on with the Congress, but they showed us that as a community, if we stick together, we can continue to fight this fight, which is the right fight.
“And this fight is about more than just salaries and wages and benefits, this fight is about our communities,” Ramirez said. “On behalf of the labor movement here in Chicago, we’re willing to do it, we’re willing to stick it out. One day longer! One day stronger!”
Tamarin said, “I’m a union guy, and I’m part of a larger movement, and what I see is that seven years later we’re fighting like hell, and I’m glad to be part of that.”
U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, also spoke at the rally. He spoke about Tamarin coming to him when the strike first started, asking for food and other provisions because they thought the strike was going to last a long time, then coming to him again to speak at the seventh anniversary of the strike. “I said to him, we were ready then, and we’re ready today. We’re ready today until we have justice and fairness for these workers.

U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez
Jennifer Rice photo
Keynote speaker, Congressman Luis Gutierrez speaks June 14 during the Congress Hotel strike in Chicago. Gutierrez gave recognition to the strikers who are immigrants to the United States and honored them for their struggle to lift job standards for all workers in the Chicago hospitality industry calling for both an end to the strike at the Congress Hotel and for immigration reform in the United States. Strikers and supporters also came to listen to community supporters and members of UNITE HERE Local 1.

“There’s a lot that we can do in the Congress of the United States to improve educational opportunities, to improve health opportunities, to improve job opportunities, to improve the lives and the socio-economic standing of our citizens, but you know what? If this corporation, if this owner would simply pay these workers a decent salary, he can do more than the government by paying them a decent salary and decent working conditions.”
Gutierrez also blasted the hotel’s key investor, Albert Nasser, who is Chairman and CEO of Gelmart Industries, an apparel manufacturer and importer with factories in the Philippines that have come under recent scrutiny for the treatment of their employees.
Gutierrez said, “It’s a shame that in America, people who have been blessed, and are so rich and so wealthy that they can have a house in New York, another one in Europe and travel all over the world in comfort, and at the same time deny a decent wage and health care to these workers. But in Chicago, we say, ‘Shame on you, and we will strike and we will picket until you come and give these workers the justice they deserve.’”
Gutierrez also recognized the many immigrant workers who were part of the strike and present at the rally. “What would Chicago be; what would our nation be if it wasn’t for the renewal, the invigoration, that immigrant after immigrant brings to the city of Chicago? You know what? When the Irish came, they were treated poorly. When the Italians came, they were treated poorly. When the Polish came, they were treated poorly. When immigrants in the past came, they were treated poorly, and they were wrong to treat them poorly and they’re wrong to treat them poorly today. And just like those Americans who stood up for those immigrants in the past, we stand for the immigrants of today, and for fairness and for justice and for a living and decent wage for them.
“It’s not enough to seek election to Congress and say you’re on behalf of the workers and not be here to march at the protest with them today,” Gutierrez said. “… Thank you for allowing me to share this stage with you, with men and women who have shown courage and determination. So I leave you to go back to Washington D.C. by saying I’m invigorated, I’m stronger, I’m more determined than ever to find justice for them and all the other immigrants of this nation.”
Rabbi Dr. Victor A. Mirelman of the West Suburban Temple Har Zion, who addressed the crown in both English and Spanish said, “I come here to bring you the support of what I hope is all of the Jewish community, but not only the Jewish, but everybody.… I come from a tradition that started with Abraham, who dared to fight God for justice, even for a few people, and we are here to fight for justice for all of those who have a decent workday then they are not compensated in a fair way. We are here to fight for dignity of the individual.”
“So I say to all the workers that we will continue to fight for your personal interests and support you, and also support the plight of the immigrants, to reunite families, to give them the dignity of citizenship, of availability of work in the open and not in hiding, and we will open all those issues that reflect the plight not only of those who are immigrants now, but of all of us who immigrated 20, 30 40 years ago, or two and three and four generations ago. This is a country that must receive us all with justice and dignity,” Mirelman said.
“The role of the faith community in the struggle of workers in Chicago has been so critical to the ability of many of us to continue,” Tamarin said. “And to see the leaders of the faith community practice their religion not only in houses of worship but out here on the street with us has been so significant and so wonderful and has made such a critical difference to the struggle we’re engaged in.”
Jose Herrera is the son of Adela Soto, who was one of the original strikers. He spoke not only for his mother, who does not speak English, but on behalf of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, who fights for rights and justice for immigrant workers. “I am a son; a son of a worker who went on strike seven years ago. I am a son of a worker who every day, rain, sleet snow, sunshine, hot or cold, she will get up every morning and get her clothes suited for the weather and [go] out of the house for one more day of the fight.
“I’m a son of a worker who has stood up for her rights; for the worker’s rights, and is willing to fight to the end. I’m the son of a worker that every night, she comes home from fighting for what she believes in, she looks for her children and gives them a goodnight kiss. She looks for me to see if I’m awake. She sits down and shares with me what her day was like. She starts with the strike, she tells me about going downtown and talking with business people, politicians and just random people downtown telling them about the Congress Hotel strike.”
Herrera talked about how the prolonged strike has taken a toll on his mother, who mans the picket lines in the morning, then works a night job to support her family. “I see the look in her face. She looks tired, exhausted and about to fall asleep any minute after being out on the strike all morning then working at her second job in the evening. Yes, she’s tired, but she keeps on telling me stories about the good and bad stuff she encounters when she talks in favor of the Congress Hotel strike. I am a son of a woman that went on strike seven years ago. Since then, my family’s life has changed, and so did all of yours today right here. That woman is represented here in each one of you strikers here behind me, each one of you that went on strike seven years ago, and each one of you that will be fighting until justice is done.”
Herrera said, “I am an immigrant, undocumented and no longer afraid. I am a student, a worker and just like I’m not afraid to say my legal status, you all have shown courage and are unafraid to stand up for what’s right and for justice. I am past of the immigrant movement. But let me tell you this, there is no difference between the labor movement. We are all one movement. As a worker, I have the same rights as any other worker out here.
“As an immigrant, I have the same rights as any other immigrant out here, and as a human being, I have the same rights as any other human being as well. We fight for a better life. We fight for a better living. We fight for better working conditions. We fight for better wages. We fight for benefits, and we fight for our rights. We are one movement, because immigrant’s rights are workers rights. We are a movement that will fight for justice no matter what. We are a movement that will work together to accomplish justice.
“We are a movement that will bring the Congress Hotel to its knees, and we are a movement that will claim victory on the Congress Hotel pretty soon. Let’s keep fighting. Let’s keep organizing, and let’s keep encouraging each other until justice is done.”
Then Herrera revved up the crowd by shouting: “When workers rights are under attack, what do we do?” To which the crowd would answer, “Fight back!”
Before the strike, Rene Patino was a room service worker at the hotel. “We face two big struggles—one for the rights of workers and the other for the rights of immigrants,” he said. “These struggles make us stronger every day. We face great obstacles, but we will keep fighting until all workers are treated with respect and we have just immigration laws.”
Gloria Sanchez was employed at the Congress for four years before the strike began seven years ago. She has been on the picket lines every week since then. “For me, it’s a very special day,” Sanchez said. “We’re celebrating our anniversary. We’ve been out here for seven years, and for me, this has been a very significant and important fight.”
Asked how she feels about at the people, particularly the minorities that came out to support the strikers, Sanchez said, “I’m very happy about all the people that were here today, and whenever somebody comes out to help us or to support us, I always feel like we’re stronger, and we’re not by ourselves, that there’s always people who help us and support us.
“I don’t know how long it will go on, but for me, it’s not important how much time it is, it’s important what we’re fighting for,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez wanted her fellow workers to know that “they should not be faint, that they should continue to fight, and that we need to continue to fight for the rights of all workers.”

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2 thoughts on “Congress Hotel strike becomes longest in U.S. history

  1. 7 years – Sounds like Poor Union Leadership.

    Throw out the union- Go UNION FREE

    and see if things improve.

  2. Union free? You must be joking. What on earth would make things “improve” without a union? The boss, I suppose, would suddenly be willing to grant higher wages and benefits out of the goodness of his heart?

    IF any of them could go back to their old jobs without the union (a big IF), what would the pay be? The benefits? What rights would they have? I can tell you: crap, crap, and crap.

    “See if things improve!” The idea! Like they could just try it out and then if they don’t like it, go back. It’s hard as hell these days to start a union in this country and once you’ve got one, you’d better try to keep it. If you don’t like the leadership, work to change it. But the last thing you want to do is go non-union.

    These folks have made some tough decisions and have sacrificed a lot. They have to decide this for themselves what their next moves are, but your anti-union advice is reckless and based on ignorance.

    The facts are that unionized workers enjoy better pay and benefits than non-union workers and more rights on the job. Most people have never been heard some important facts about their rights on the job, such as the fact that in this country today without a union private sector workers can be fired “at any time for any reason or no reason” by law. But with a union discipline must be for “just cause” and in any investigatory meeting any worker has a right to have a union rep present. And so on.

    Of course we always have to fight for these things, just like the rights we have now as a result of past union struggles: child labor laws, health and safety laws, minimum wage, limits on how many hours we can work in a day and in a week without being paid overtime, and so on. We are all better off because of the struggles of union workers in this country, whether we are union or not. When unions win higher wages, everyone’s wages tend to go up, too, for example. And many of these laws that unions fought for improved life for everyone.

    But struggle means we lose sometimes. A lot of the time. Maybe most. And even when we win we have to sacrifice. But without struggle and sacrifice there is no progress. It has always been that way. Probably always will. The Congress Hotel strikers are fighting the good fight. For all of us.

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