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Striking Chicago hotel workers are getting new contracts and year-round health insurance

Chicago hotel workers have been on strike for almost a full month, but for many hotel workers, the work stoppage has already paid off. Hundreds of workers remain on strike, but more than a dozen hotels have reached deals with workers in the Unite Here Local 1 union.

On Tuesday, workers from nine hotels were still on strike. At its height, strike affected 26 hotels, whose workers’ saw their contracts expire on August 30. Although all the workers are represented by the Unite Here Local 1 union, workers negotiate with the hotels separately and end strikes separately. In total, these contracts cover 6,000 workers.

Over the weekend, thousands of workers at five hotels ratified contracts that will allow them to have wintertime health care coverage, which was workers’ main concern when they began the strike on September 7, the Chicago Tribune reported. Usually workers would be laid off during the less demanding winter months and would lose health coverage, putting many workers’ health at risk.

Q. Rivers, a house attendant at Palmer House Hilton, spoke to ThinkProgress last week, before the strike ended at the hotel. Rivers explained that as a diabetic, it was particularly difficult to go without insurance.

“Without my insurance, I can’t take [insulin] properly and I can’t see my endocrinologist when I need to,” Rivers said. “It’s hard to get any kind of treatment anything without health insurance. That’s what I rely on and it makes it very difficult during those three to four months that I’m off.”

CREDIT: Facebook/UNITE HERE Local 1

Rivers said that at the Hilton, housekeepers have to be there as long as seven to 10 years, “doing constant work” to get year-round health insurance.

“It takes a while to get that so it’s not fair to people who just started working and are getting on their feet to have to get that insurance,” Rivers added.

Workers have also talked about wage increases for tipped workers and lessening heavy workloads as part of negotiations. Workers at 17 hotels have now reached agreements to end strikes.

Day 26 of the #ChicagoHotelStrike and the picket lines are evolving. Check out the strikers at the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza! #TuesdayThoughts pic.twitter.com/qt9dBZSl18

— Lou Weeks (@LouisMWeeks) October 2, 2018

The effects of the strike were easy to spot over the past few weeks. Hotels were struggling to keep up with work as the cooks, dishwashers, housekeepers, and doormen remained on strike. At Rivers’ hotel, management had to contend with long check-in lines, towels piling up, and many unmade beds. Tourists at striking hotels have told local news outlets that their rooms weren’t clean.

It’s rare for a hotel strike to reach this many hotels because usually hotel work stoppages are targeted toward one hotel chain or location. This hotel strike is the first in decades of the city’s history, Crain’s Chicago Business explained, to hit all of the hotels with unionized workers and the first to spread to all hotel positions, including doormen, housekeepers, and dishwashers.

Rivers explained that one of the reasons the strike is so broad is because access to healthcare is an issue everyone can rally behind.

“Health care was the big issue and we can all relate to that,” Rivers said. “That’s why we have to be out on the street together because if they’re going to cut our health insurance, we can’t take care of ourselves or the people on our insurance. That’s why health insurance was the main reason that we got together to do this, no matter what the job title is.”

Hotel workers celebrate their new contracts over the weekend. CREDIT: Facebook/UNITE HERE Local 1

Hyatt is one of the hotel companies that has not reached an agreement with workers yet. On Monday, hundreds of hotel workers rallied at Hyatt Regency Chicago and called on Hyatt to end the strike. Demetrius Jackson, a convention services worker at the Hyatt Regency, told the Chicago Tribune that he is committed to continuing the strike. His wife, Jackie McCastle-Jackson, also works for Hyatt doing housekeeping and is laid off during the winter, as many hotel workers are. 

Jackson told the Tribune, “We’ve made personal sacrifices, paying what few bills we can. We get paid out of the strike fund, but that’s a fraction of what we make. It’s a sacrifice we have to make. These hotels have made billions of dollars and we’re just trying to get our just due.”

Workers have repeatedly pointed out that Chicago hotels have been doing well financially, with a record number of visitors and $2.3 billion in revenue last year.

Hyatt Hotels has asked a federal mediator to get involved and said the union is “remaining uncooperative.”

Despite the financial hardships Jackson mentioned, workers had a chance to bond and build solidarity.

Q. Rivers said of the strike, “It’s a family out there. They’re out there with us and we talk about our struggles and we’ve built a really good vibe. People I never talk to inside of the job I talk to every day now … When someone is feeling down, there’s someone to pick them up, always. This is not just a strike, it’s a bonding time for us as coworkers.”

Chicago hotel workers are on strike. pic.twitter.com/buAdpChILk

— Joshua Liebman (@Joshua_Liebman) October 2, 2018

@TroyForChicago walking the picket line at @hyatt in solidarity with @UniteHerelocal1. #chicagohotelstrike pic.twitter.com/uyD4wrusX1

— Joshua Kilroy (@joshkilroy) October 2, 2018

Local, state, and national political figures have been supportive of the strike, including Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, alderman for Chicago’s 35th Ward, Troy LaRaviere, who is running for mayor of Chicago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. The Democratic Attorneys General Association and Howard Brown Health Center, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ people’s health, and Economic Policy Institute have also shown their support by moving their events from striking hotels.

Hotel workers are also going on strike in Boston. On Wednesday morning, more than a thousand hotel workers went on strike to demand better pay, CBS Boston reported. Bartenders, bellmen, and housekeepers represented by the union Unite Here Local 26 went on strike in front of seven Marriott-operated hotels. It is the first hotel strike in Boston, the union said.

On average, housekeepers such as Rivers can’t afford to sleep in the same hotel rooms they clean, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In the 1960s and 70s, hotel housekeepers’ wages could cover a hotel room with their day’s wages but housekeepers’ wages have barely budged in contrast to hotel companies’ healthy profit margins, the nonprofit’s 2016 report said. Rivers said that she is optimistic workers will continue to stay close after the strike to ensure they have decent working conditions.

“That would be the goal. I would hope that everyone could stay connected. This [strike] shouldn’t just be the reason we’re talking out here and bonding,” Rivers said. “Because the company thinks together so we should think together as a team. Hopefully that will carry into the workplace.”

Read more: thinkprogress.org

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