Unite Here blasts hotel managers after contracts expire

A union that represents thousands of hotel workers in downtown Chicago condemned their managers this morning, threatening to strike if necessary and accusing them of using the economic recession as an excuse for poor working conditions.


Hours ahead of negotiations with executives at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, leaders at Unite Here stood outside the hotel and charged them with firing some workers while it overworked others, unfairly laying a burden on the staff who remain as hundreds remain unemployed.


Contracts negotiated in 2006 between the union and downtown-area hotels expired at midnight, and bargaining for new ones began in early August. The contracts cover more than 6,000 workers at 30 hotels, including the Hyatt Regency, according to union documents.


Organizers said that in previous cycles, new contracts had been negotiated before or shortly after old ones expired, and that workers are growing frustrated with their working conditions and the slow pace of negotiations with hotels.


"They've cut too deep for too long," said Henry Tamarin, president of Unite Here Local 1, the union's branch in the city. "We want to see a rebalancing."


Union leaders chose to air their criticisms outside the Hyatt Regency Chicago partly to highlight what they portrayed as injustices there.


According to union materials, the hotel has laid off 199 of its 1,020 workers from November to March, and from January to April, nearly half of the remaining staff has worked overtime as dozens of housekeepers had no work at all.


"My message to the Hyatt Regency is: Stop the abuse," said Francine Jones, a room attendant at the hotel for 18 years. "Everybody's overworked. Everybody's tired."


In a statement e-mailed last night, Hyatt Regency Vice President and Managing Director John Schafer wrote that managers are negotiating in good faith with the union, and that they expect to come to an agreement without a disruption in labor.


"While we have had to make some tough business decisions that have impacted the jobs of some employees and managers," Schafer wrote, "we continue to adjust the way we do business so that we can keep more people working."


At the press conference today, union President Tamarin said that a strike is possible. He declined to give details of negotiations, but said that, although the union acknowledges difficult economic circumstances, it is looking for improvements on existing contracts.


Tamarin said the union is open on the issue of how long future contracts would last. Previous contracts have lasted three years, but a shorter one might afford the union an earlier opportunity to negotiate upward if the economy picks up by the next expiration.


Union leaders claim that, despite the recession, hotel executives have not proven that the economy is affecting them drastically. The union points to data that shows the U.S. hotel industry has generated more than $200 billion in profits over the past decade.


"When times were good, they weren't coming to us and saying, let's share the prosperity," Tamarin said.


Yet the union admits that since 2002, hourly wages for housekeepers in the city have risen from $8.83 to $14.60 today. It presents the gain as the result of hard-fought negotiations, rather than generosity from hotel managers, conscious of the bottom line.


"If that's their desire, to maximize their profit, that's their job," Tamarin said. "We get it. I'd be trying to do the same thing."

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.