Plan Commission snubs Congress Hotel workers

  • By Claire Bushey
  • Staff Writer
  • January 16, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

Striking workers from the Congress Hotel turned up at a Chicago Plan Commission meeting yesterday to protest a possible lawsuit settlement between the city and hotel.

Commissioners refused to speak to the approximately 60 workers, union representatives and sympathizers because the meeting agenda didn’t mention the Congress Hotel.

“I’ve never seen an entire committee of people hide in a back room before,” says Kenneth Snyder, political director for Unite Here! Local 1.

About 130 workers at the Congress, 520 S. Michigan Ave., went on strike in June 2003 after hotel management proposed cutting their pay by 7 percent and eliminating employees’ health and retirement benefits.

The city later declined to issue permits for a hotel expansion project, which included a four-story addition, a pool, a restaurant and a health club.

The hotel sued the city and Alderman Robert Fioretti (D-2) in July 2007 to force the city to issue permits for an expansion project and to prohibit either defendant from interfering in the labor dispute. It also wants a declaration that refusing to issue the permits violated the hotel’s right to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The lawsuit accuses Fioretti of holding up approval of the expansion because of the labor dispute.

Peter Andjelkovich, an attorney representing the hotel, says the two sides have been negotiating a settlement.

The issue came before the commission, which is charged with ensuring property development conforms with Chicago’s long-range planning goals, in January 2008 and was not approved.

The union is worried that a lawsuit settlement will include the Plan Commission voting on the expansion project a second time, says Jessica Lawlor, the boycott coordinator at Unite Here Local 1.

Nothing has been decided yet, but Andjelkovich says the hotel hopes for a resolution with the city “sooner rather than later.”

That’s what the striking workers fear, and why the delegation arrived half an hour before a Plan Commission meeting hoping to talk with some of the commissioners. They were told they couldn’t meet with anyone, first by the police officers assigned to the City Council chambers, then by the commissioners themselves.

“If you’re not on the agenda, what are you bothering us for?” asked Alderman Bernard Stone, a commission member. “We’re not going to let you interrupt. End of story. It’s not on the agenda, and we’re being sued. We’re defendants in a lawsuit! Don’t you understand?”

The workers and supporters left, promising to return should the commission ever add the Congress hotel to their agenda. Next they met with two county commissioners, Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago) and Joseph Mario Moreno (D-Chicago), who pledged their support.

“This is one of the easiest things I’ve been asked to do in my 15 years in office,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado accepted the union’s invitation to walk the picket line. In keeping with longstanding political tradition, he even kissed the baby of striking housekeeper Rosa Zavala.

Jose Gomez was among the people who visited City Hall yesterday. He stewards at the Palmer House Hilton for $14 an hour plus benefits. Doing the same work at the Congress paid $6 an hour, he says through a translator.

Of the original 130 strikers, only 68 continue to work the picket line. Some have returned to their homes in other countries, he says. But Gomez, whose own four children are still in El Salvador, continues to walk the line for his scheduled 25 hours a week.

“We’re going to stay there as long as it takes,” he says.

Staff Writer Claire Bushey covers unions and labor issues for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 14.