Hundreds walk off the job at the Sheraton Chicago

Facing layoffs and cuts as travel business rebounds, hotel workers protest

(Chicago, IL) – At 10:45am this morning, nearly 200 hotel workers at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, managed by Starwood Hotels, walked off the job in protest of layoffs and chronic understaffing that have persisted for months despite a big boost in travel business and rising Starwood profits. Hundreds of housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers, bellmen and other hotel workers picketed the hotel for two hours before returning to work around 1:00pm.

Workers report that working conditions at the Sheraton have deteriorated over many months, with staffing cuts that have continued, even as travel business has rebounded. In recent months, workers have filed a number of unresolved grievances to curb the staffing cuts and growing reliance on subcontracted services, which have left many hotel workers in Chicago without jobs or benefits. Today, workers led a delegation to Sheraton General Manager Rick Ueno demanding relief from the growing strain of their work. Thus far, management has refused to adequately respond to worker concerns.

“This is peak travel season in Chicago, but Starwood just isn’t bringing people back to work,” says Jorge Mulasano, who has worked as an Assistant Sous Chef at the Sheraton for 7 years. “I walked off the job today, because I’m tired of our work being outsourced or doing the job of two or three people, when others still have no work at all.”

Nationwide, the hotel industry is rebounding faster and stronger than expected, with a hearty rebound projected in 2011 and 2012. In Chicago, hotel RevPAR (revenue per available room) is projected to be up 7.6% in 2010, up 13.8% in 2011, and up 8.1% in 2012. Starwood Hotels earned a net income of $73 million for the year ending December 31, 2009, the year that marked the depth of the recession. Starwood Hotels has earned a net income of $142 million for the 6 months ending June 30, 2010, as hotels recover from 2009. Starwood ended this last quarter with $154 million in cash.

Despite trends showing a strong recovery for the hotel industry, hotels are still squeezing workers and cutting staff. More than 115,000 jobs in the hotel industry have been cut since the recession began in 2008—43,000 of which have come just in the first quarter of 2010 as the industry has projected recovery.

“I’m not surprised that Sheraton workers took this step today,” says Henry Tamarin, the President of UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union. “Frustration has been growing for a long time and people are angry that management is cutting staff and taking their work. There aren’t enough workers for all the work that needs to be done, and it needs to stop.”

 

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UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, represents over 15,000 hotel and food service workers in Chicago and casino workers in Northwest Indiana.

Chicago Hyatt workers call for boycott

Over 250 Rabbis and other Jewish leaders nationwide sign onto pledge in support

(Chicago, IL) – Today, UNITE HERE Local 1 members are gathering in front of Hyatt Global Headquarters in Chicago to call for a boycott at several area Hyatt Hotels—the Hyatt Regency Chicago, the Hyatt O’Hare, and the Park Hyatt. Hyatt workers will be joined by Jewish allies, who are releasing a pledge signed by over 250 Rabbis and other Jewish leaders nationwide in support of Hyatt workers across North America. The boycott and national pledge represent the latest escalation of a labor dispute with Hyatt, which has become the target of labor demonstrations across North America in recent weeks.

The boycott announcement comes almost one year after union contracts with Hyatt in Chicago have expired (Aug. 31, 2009). Hyatt workers have taken several actions in recent months, including a work stoppage on May 26, 2010, a picket of Hyatt’s annual shareholders meeting on June 9, 2010, a massive demonstration outside the Hyatt Regency Chicago on July 22, 2010, and a strike vote on July 29, 2010. Hyatt protests in Chicago have been echoed by other major demonstrations this summer in 15 cities across the U.S. and Canada.

The three Hyatt boycotts in Chicago, which join seven other active boycotts of Hyatt properties nationwide, signal a growing crisis for Chicago-based Hyatt and its billionaire owners—the Pritzker Family—who have become a symbol among hotel workers for how the wealthy are trying to take unfair advantage of the recession. Hotel workers in Chicago have endured staff cuts, reduced hours, and excessive injury rates. Frustration among area workers has deepened, as Hyatt has tried to make further job cuts and lock workers into recession contracts even as the economy rebounds.

“My husband works in the laundry and he was laid off, which has made things very difficult for my family,” says Carmen Sandoval, who has worked at the Hyatt O’Hare as a room attendant for 30 years. “I have also had many injuries over the years working in housekeeping, and I am calling for a boycott today because my family has suffered enough. We cannot allow Hyatt owners with their billions to use the economy as an excuse to make life even harder for us for years to come.”

While many hotel workers live in poverty, the Pritzker Family cashed out over $900 million in their sale of Hyatt shares in November 2009. Penny Pritzker, the former national finance chairwoman of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, who now serves as a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB). Hyatt reported that as of June 30, 2010 it had over $1.6 billion in cash and short term investments available. Despite these trends showing a strong recovery for the hotel industry, hotels are still squeezing workers and cutting staff. While this marks a trend involving several major hotel companies, Hyatt is the starkest example.
“Justice for workers is part of the very DNA of Jewish tradition – and American Jews, we have a deep attachment to the history of the labor movement in this country,” says Rabbi Brant Rosen of Chicago. “Although these issues might not affect our community as directly as they used to, Jews still have a sacred responsibility to stand in solidarity with American workers whenever and wherever they are being treated unjustly.”


UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, represents over 15,000 hotel and food service workers in Chicago and casino workers in Northwest Indiana.

Chicago Hilton workers vote overwhelmingly to strike

Hilton workers join thousands of other area hotel workers preparing for a strike

(Chicago, IL) – Today, Hilton Hotels workers in Chicago voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike at 4 area properties – the Chicago Hilton, Hilton O’Hare, the Palmer House Hilton, and the Drake, according to UNITE HERE Local 1 and Local 450. With 96% of union members voting in favor of a strike, the vote authorizes the rank-and-file bargaining committee to call a strike, if necessary. The Chicago Hilton and Hilton O’Hare are owned and managed by Hilton Hotels, while the other two are managed by the company.

Hilton workers are among 6,500 other hotel workers in downtown Chicago and over 2,000 hotel workers near Chicago’s airports affiliated with UNITE HERE Local 450 that have been in contract negotiations since August of 2009.

Hilton workers in Chicago have endured staff cuts, reduced hours, and excessive injury rates. Frustration among area workers has deepened, as Hilton has tried to make further job cuts and lock workers into recession contracts that raise family healthcare costs and flatten wages for years to come, even as the economy rebounds. Among Hilton’s proposals are dramatic increases to the already burdensome housekeeping workload, which jeopardize worker safety and make recession-driven staffing cuts permanent as business returns.

“Hilton’s business is coming back, but it seems like they want housekeepers like me to live in the recession forever,” says Sherri Steverson, a room attendant at the Chicago Hilton downtown, one of Hilton Hotels’ largest owned hotels. “I already have to take pain medication to get through the day, and the workload increases that Hilton is proposing for housekeepers at my hotel just might break me all together. I came here today with 90 other room attendants at the Hilton to the strike vote to say enough is enough.”

Hilton Hotels is wholly owned by Blackstone Group, one of the largest private equity firms on Wall Street. Blackstone manages $100 Billion on behalf of pension funds and other institutional investors. Hilton is Blackstone’s largest investment, bought for $26 Billion in 2007. Blackstone has continued buying companies despite the recession, offering $4.7 Billion for energy company Dynegy, Inc. just days ago.

Nationwide, the hotel industry is rebounding faster and stronger than expected, with a hearty rebound projected in 2011 and 2012. Despite these trends showing a strong recovery for the hotel industry, hotels are still squeezing workers and cutting staff.


UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, represents over
15,000 hotel and food service workers in Chicago and casino workers in Northwest Indiana.

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Chicago Hyatt workers vote overwhelmingly to strike

Facing prospect of a “permanent recession” as billionaire Hyatt owners prosper, area hotel workers gear up for strike

(Chicago, IL) – On July 29, 2010, UNITE HERE Local 1 members working at four area Hyatts—the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Park Hyatt, Hyatt McCormick Place, and Hyatt O’Hare—voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, with 92% voting in favor of striking. The vote represents a major escalation of a citywide labor dispute among Chicago’s downtown hotels and with Hyatt in particular, which has become the target of labor demonstrations across North America in recent weeks. The vote authorizes the rank-and-file bargaining committee to call a strike, if necessary.

Hyatt workers and 6,500 other hotel workers in downtown Chicago have been in citywide contract negotiations since August of 2009. On May 26, 2010 hundreds of workers at the Hyatt Regency Chicago walked off the job in protest of poor working conditions in housekeeping. On July 22, 2010 Hyatt workers and allies took part in a demonstration at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, in coordination with Hyatt protests in 15 cities across the U.S. and Canada.
The strike vote and other job actions by Hyatt workers signal a growing crisis for Chicago-based Hyatt and its billionaire owners—the Pritzker Family—who have become a symbol among hotel workers for how the wealthy are trying to take unfair advantage of the recession. Hotel workers in Chicago have endured staff cuts, reduced hours, and excessive injury rates. Frustration among area workers has deepened, as Hyatt has tried to make further job cuts and lock workers into recession contracts that raise family healthcare costs and flatten wages for years to come, even as the economy rebounds.

“The last two years have been really difficult for me,” says Tiffany Pollum, a room attendant at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. “Hyatt laid me off for 8 months, and I have a newborn baby to support. When I finally came back to work, several ladies in my department had thrown out their backs because of the new heavy mattresses and heavier workload at the Hyatt now. What was already a hard job just got harder, and I’m standing up to Hyatt, because their profits are coming back but we’re still in pain.”

While many hotel workers live in poverty, the Pritzker Family cashed out over $900 million in their sale of Hyatt shares in November 2009. The most prominent member of the Pritzker Family is Penny Pritzker, the former national finance chairwoman of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She now serves as a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB).

Nationwide, the hotel industry is rebounding faster and stronger than expected, with a hearty rebound projected in 2011 and 2012. Hyatt reported that as of March 31, 2010 it had over $1.3 billion in cash available. Despite these trends showing a strong recovery for the hotel industry, hotels are still squeezing workers and cutting staff. While this marks a trend involving several major hotel companies, Hyatt is the starkest example.


UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, represents over
15,000 hotel and food service workers in Chicago and casino workers in Northwest Indiana.
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Major victory for Blackstone Hotel workers

Hotel ordered to offer jobs back with back pay and benefits
Union estimates lost earnings and benefits to total at least $250,000

Chicago, IL – In a major ruling this week, an administrative law judge of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that owners and management of the Blackstone Hotel had violated federal labor law by illegally firing workers, cutting staff benefits, and circulating a petition to decertify the union. The Blackstone Hotel was ordered to offer jobs back to 14 employees who were laid off on June 15, 2009 and compensate them with any lost wages and benefits resulting from the company’s unlawful actions against them, with interest. The decision represents an important victory for workers at the Blackstone Hotel, who have been battling the Hotel for more than a year to bring workers back to work and win a first contract.

Among the other significant rulings in this case, the judge also ordered the company to restore its 2008-2009 health insurance plan and compensate Blackstone employees for unlawful increases to health plan costs. The Hotel was also ordered to stop refusing to bargain with the Union on health plan coverage and layoffs.

Based on documents turned over by the Blackstone, the Union estimates that these lost earnings and increased benefit costs already total at least $250,000, and this amount is growing every day.

Community leaders have long criticized the owners and management of the Blackstone Hotel for their systematic efforts to dismantle the union, despite the hotel having received $72.9 million in taxpayer subsidies and credits ($40 million of which are tax credits meant to spur low income community development). As part of the ruling, the judge found that a Blackstone manager broke federal law by illegally encouraging and passing around a Union decertification petition. The judge’s decision reinforces an earlier decision issued by an NLRB Regional Director on Mar. 27, 2009, finding that the Hotel illegally encouraged and assisted some employees in circulating the decertification petition.

LaMar Johnson was one of the 14 workers laid off from the room service department. “I got married just 6 months before I was laid off from the Blackstone Hotel, and this last year has been a real struggle for me and my family. I haven’t even been able to buy a new pair of shoes. I’m gratified to know that the judge in this case sided with us and found that the hotel had broken the law. It feels like someone is actually looking out for the little guy.”

Workers at the Blackstone began organizing shortly after the hotel reopened in the summer of 2008, and the Union became officially recognized in December 2008. Workers began bargaining their first contract at the hotel shortly thereafter, and have been negotiating their first contract since.

“At every step, the Blackstone Hotel has skirted the law, waging a vicious and illegal anti-union campaign in an attempt to decertify the union and impede the collective bargaining process,” said UNITE HERE Local 1 President Henry Tamarin. “Now the Hotel wants to skirt the judge’s decision and their moral responsibility to these workers, by appealing this case and refusing to grant these workers what is rightfully owed to them.”

The Judge’s orders are directed to Sage Hospitality and Chicago Master Lessee, LLC. Prudential Insurance Company has an investor member interest in Chicago Master Lessee, LLC. The company has appealed the judge’s decision. Workers from the Blackstone Hotel and other union supporters gathered in front of the hotel on Thursday morning to call on the hotel to drop the appeal and immediately remedy the situation by bringing laid off workers back to work with compensation.


UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, represents over 15,000 workers in the Chicago area.
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Ameristar workers appear before Indiana Gaming Commission on “part-timer” crisis

Workers call for investigation of growing state tax burden from staff cuts in one of Indiana’s most profitable industries

(Indianapolis, IN) – Workers from Ameristar casino in East Chicago traveled to the State Capitol today to appear before the Indiana Gaming Commission to raise concerns about the casino’s increasing reliance on part-time workers, despite Ameristar awarding more than $10 million on bonuses and stock awards to its top corporate officials. Workers testified to the personal impact of Ameristar aggressively cutting worker hours and the tax burden to the state when employees lose income and health benefits due to their part-time status. Workers called on the Indiana Gaming Commission to investigate how many Ameristar employees have enrolled in any public assistance programs as a result of having been shifted from full-time to part-time status.

“After 13 years of service, Ameristar cut me to part time and I lost my benefits,” says Christinia Davis, a Buffet Server at Ameristar Casino, who has racked up more than $100,000 in medical bills from recent major surgery. “I’m proud to say that I haven’t had to rely on state aid for more than a decade now because of this job, but with my part-time status that may all change.”

Christinia is just one of many area casino workers who has seen her hours cut in recent months. 30% of the unionized staff at Ameristar are now working part-time and are not eligible for health benefits. The average buffet beverage server at Ameristar currently makes $9.85 an hour, meaning an employee who works part-time at 28.5 hours a week at part-time status, has a gross annual income of $14,598. At that level, one would fall below the federal poverty line as a head of a two-person household and qualify for Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Hoosier Healthwise, Indiana’s health insurance program for low-income families.

By contrast, Ameristar’s top executives have done well in recent months, and freely admit their intent to rely more and more on part-time workers to boost corporate profitability.

“We’ve made a big shift from full-time to part-time labor, which gives us a lot more flexibility in scheduling,” said Gordon Kanofsky—an Ameristar CEO and Vice Chairman, who earned $3,836,470 in total compensation in 2009—on an earnings call with investors.

The Indiana Gaming Commission is charged with regulating and issuing licenses to Indiana riverboats, on the premise that these casinos “promote the most economic development in a home dock area,” that “best serve the interests of the citizens in Indiana.” Casino workers called on Commission members to assess whether Ameristar still meets that criteria by investigating the negative economic impact and tax burden of Ameristar’s reliance on part-time workers.

“When gaming came to East Chicago over a dozen years ago, these casinos were supposed to provide good jobs to replace the ones that were moving overseas,” says Jami Peterson, a bartender at Ameristar East Chicago. “Instead, my coworkers are going to the state to get food stamps, partial unemployment or healthcare.”

UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, represents over 15,000 hotel and food service workers in Chicago and casino workers in Northwest Indiana.
Workers from Ameristar available for interview.
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Gutierrez honors Congress Hotel Strikers at 7th Anniversary Rally

Chicago, IL—Today, strikers at the Congress Hotel, joined by hundreds of community supporters and members of UNITE HERE Local 1, rallied outside the Congress Hotel to commemorate the 7th Anniversary of the Congress Hotel Strike, now the longest hotel strike in American history.

The event, led by 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. In so doing, strike supporters at the rally called both for an end to the strike at the Congress Hotel and immigration reform in the United States.

An overwhelming majority of the courageous individuals who have led the longest hotel strike in American history at the Congress Hotel are immigrants to the United States. Working families in Chicago have made astounding gains in recent years because the Congress strikers have refused to settle for substandard wages. At the time that the strike began, Chicago housekeepers were making just $8.83 an hour, compared to $14.60 an hour today. The strikers at the Congress Hotel stand as a powerful example of how immigrant workers in the United States are leading the fight to raise standards for low-wage workers in the service industry and beyond.

“The United States was built by immigrants, who came here and fought to make jobs in this country better,” said Henry Tamarin, the President of UNITE HERE Local 1—the union of hospitality workers in Chicago. “The Congress Hotel strikers continue that tradition today.”

On June 15, 2003, members of UNITE HERE Local 1 working at the Congress Hotel went out on strike after the hotel decided to freeze wages until 2010, refused to pay healthcare premiums for its employees (effectively eliminating employee healthcare benefits), and demanded the ability to subcontract out all bargaining unit work at the hotel. To ensure that hotel jobs in this city are strong, family-sustaining jobs, Congress strikers have taken the fight to the streets of Chicago, New York, the Philippines, and around the world. There are about 60 active remaining strikers, who both actively picket the Congress hotel and lead campaign statewide to bring an end to the Congress Hotel Strike.

Since the time that negotiations began, the Congress Hotel has never offered a proposal with increases in wages or the company’s share of healthcare costs from the rates listed in the contract that expired in 2002.

“It’s been hard over the last few years, but I’m doing this for my kids—and for all the other hotel workers with families in this city. I want to leave things better for those who come after me,” said Dolores Contreras, a single mother of three and a striker who worked at the Congress Hotel as a banquet server before the strike began.

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