Striking hotel workers ratified a contract with Marriott International, the union said Thursday. The pact could pave the way for a resolution of the 2-week-old work stoppage at more than two dozen Chicago hotels.
“Marriott signing just puts a lot of pressure on the other companies,” UNITE HERE Local 1 union organizer Jairo Nunez yelled through a bullhorn outside the Hyatt Regency on Thursday, as picketing workers paused their banging and chanting to cheer the news. “This is proof that we can do it, so we have to keep fighting.”
Marriott did not immediately respond to a request for comment. UNITE HERE Local 1 spokesman Elliott Mallen said there would be no official comment until a statement is released. But the union tweeted Thursday evening that the contract had been ratified at the Marriott hotels and the Hotel Blake.
Thousands of housekeepers, doormen, cooks and other hotel employees have been on strike since Sept. 7 to demand year-round health insurance and other improvements to work conditions as they negotiate new contracts. About 6,000 workers across 30 downtown hotels are covered by contracts that expired at the end of August.
Twenty-six hotels have experienced a work stoppage, including six hotels under the Marriott umbrella: JW Marriott, Sheraton Grand, Westin River North, Westin Michigan Avenue, W Chicago Lakeshore, and W Chicago City Center.
After picketing around-the-clock for the past two weeks, there were no signs of protesters in front of several of the Marriott hotels Thursday.
For workers continuing to picket outside of other hotels, word of the tentative agreement with Marriott was an encouraging shot in the arm.
“It’s very exciting,” said Yi Zhong Lam, 64, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency, who stood amid a long line of picketers.
Lam, who has 30 years on the job, said her biggest concern is the increased workload on housekeepers as the hotel adds more pillows to beds and more beds to rooms. Though she is close to retirement, Lam, who has spent at least five hours a day picketing, said, “I still need to strike to support the younger workers.”
Hyatt Hotels, whose affected hotels include the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and Park Hyatt, has negotiation sessions with the union scheduled for Thursday or Friday, said spokeswoman Stephanie Lerdall.
“Hyatt continues to negotiate in good faith,” Lerdall said. “We have addressed health care in our ongoing discussions with Local 1 and in our proposals, and we look forward to the union’s favorable response.”
Hilton Hotels and Resorts, whose affected hotels include the Palmer House Hilton, DoubleTree Magnificent Mile, Hilton Chicago and the Drake hotel, said negotiations are ongoing.
Each hotel brand negotiates with the union separately. But generally the most efficient and effective strategy is to get one of the larger employers to establish a baseline agreement on the issue that other hotels in the city will follow, said Bob Bruno, labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“The incentive (for the union) is to create a standard for the industry,” Bruno said. “And the employers gain some value on that too.”
Workers protesting outside smaller hotels saw an impending contract at Marriott as good news for them.
“We are more energized now,” said Guadalupe Gomez, 55, who has worked as a housekeeper at the Inn of Chicago in Streeterville for 27 years. “We are happy to know this fight will have a good result.”
Gomez, who was banging on a frying pan, said she was striking to ensure year-round health insurance for colleagues who lose the benefit when they get temporarily laid off during the slow winter months.
Outside the Kimpton Hotel Palomar in River North, strike captain Roger Rialmo said he wasn’t sure if the strike would be successful when it began, but with Marriott’s tentative agreement “I really am 100 percent positive we will win.”
“I really feel we are right behind them,” said Rialmo, a server at the Hotel Palomar’s restaurant, Sable.
The strike has disrupted operations at some hotels.
At the Sheraton Grand, guests are given a document at check-in listing the services that will not be available because of the strike, including housekeeping and room service, said guest P.J. Santoro, 34, who was in town from Orange County for a conference. The Sheraton’s restaurants are also closed.
“For us it’s just two days so we didn’t really notice it,” Santoro said said. “If you’re on vacation it might be more annoying.”
Most guests said their stays at the affected hotels felt like business as usual.
“I haven’t noticed a difference,” said George Ball, 66, of Aurora, who stayed at the Hyatt Regency on Wednesday night with his wife for a night in the city to see “Hamilton.” “It’s loud, but it’s fine.”
The affected hotels have kept operating thanks to having all hands on deck.
The Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza trained management and staff before the strike began so that everyone would be ready to do jobs they don’t normally do, said Tina Beverly, human resources director, who herself has stripped and made beds. Thanks to everyone’s efforts, plus temporary workers, housekeeping and room service continued to be offered and reservations have been unaffected. About 35 of the hotel’s 210 employees participated in the strike, she said.
“We knew what the workload would be each day and we scheduled accordingly,” Beverly said.
Hotels also had to contend with the strike coming during peak wedding season, when brides and grooms depend on them not only for receptions but also for rehearsal dinners, post-wedding brunches and blocks of rooms.
Susan Cordogan, owner of wedding planning firm Big City Bride, said that “many hotels are taking extreme measures to uphold daily operations.”
Marc Stookal, whose eldest son got married at the Palmer House Hilton the first weekend of the strike, said he and his wife were driving to the hotel from their home in Buffalo Grove when they heard the news on the car radio that the strike had begun.
“It was pretty disconcerting at the time because we didn’t know how that would affect the house staff, the serving staff, the cooking staff,” said Stookal, 62, a lawyer. They called the hotel wedding planner, who assured them a contingency plan was in place, and they arrived to a phalanx of noisy but polite strikers banging drums and a sympathetic staff working double-time inside.
The wedding went off without a hitch, with managers doing much of the serving and bartending, he said.
“They really did a nice job in accommodating us in what could have been a bad situation,” Stookal said. “Because it worked out well, it’s a good memory.”
Hilton, whose Palmer House Hilton and the Drake are popular wedding venues, said in a statement that “we’re hosting beautiful wedding receptions and group catering events, and continuing to receive large group reservation requests.”
Some conferences scheduled at the affected hotels did move, not out of concern about service but so as not to cross picket lines.
The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning nonprofit think tank, announced Thursday that it planned to move its annual Economic Analysis and Research Network conference from the Kimpton Hotel Allegro to “stand in solidarity” with the striking hotel workers. The conference, scheduled for Oct. 3-5, involved nearly 300 hotel nights, the nonprofit said.
Hotels weren’t alone in being affected by the strike.
Ken Norels was enjoying the peace and quiet outside the Sheraton on Thursday, one of the Marriott hotels were protesters had dispersed after the tentative agreement was reached. Norels, a ticket agent for Chicago Trolley, staffs a stand outside the hotel and had to listen all day to the bullhorns and drums.
“It was annoying as hell,” he said. “But they got the job done.”