Sitting Down, Hotel Workers Rise

Originally published in New Ground 131.1, email edition 08.02.2010.

by Bob Roman

On Thursday, July 22, several hundred people gathered in front of downtown Chicago’s Hyatt Regency hotel to protest the Hyatt chain’s failure to negotiate a new contract and, more to the point, to protest management’s attempt to take back gains made in the previous contract. Management’s rationale being the recession at a time when business at the Hyatt is recovering and the enterprise is, in any case, profitable. This action was part of a nationwide day of action at Hyatt hotels called by UNITE HERE.

Some 17 different actions were held in the United States and Canada. With the exception of a Thursday morning action out at the Hyatt near O’Hare Airport, they all featured civil disobedience leading to arrests. In Chicago, not all those participating in blocking the street remained to be arrested. This was done to allow some police officers time off to attend slain police officer Michael Bailey’s wake and funeral. Not all the participants were happy about this, but everyone behaved in a disciplined and focused manner.

This is the second time UNITE HERE has used large-scale civil disobedience in Chicago, the first was last fall targeting the Hyatt hotel near Chicago & Michigan. Local 1 usually characterizes these actions as intended to call attention to their struggle and the issues involved. As a public relations tool, there’s no denying its effectiveness compared to a simple rally or picket line. Media were all over it.

But if it were only a PR tactic, civil disobedience probably would not be worth doing, mostly. It’s a risky business, for one thing, no matter how well choreographed it is with the local police. Too much can go wrong. For another, it’s also a good deal more expensive than you might think. Finally, it can’t be done too frequently before it becomes old news, requiring its abandonment or escalation.

What tips the scale is its role in building worker organization and solidarity. Turn the clock back to 2002, right before the members of Local 1 won a significant increase in wages and benefits by threatening to strike during one of the busiest tourist seasons. As part of their campaign, Local 1 organized a march down Michigan avenue with banners proclaiming each of the hotels where the local had representation. It was a good march with a much better than adequate turn out. But what was notable was the lack of confidence. Every person who showed up was greeted not simply with pleasure but relief. The members often lacked confidence that their fellow workers had their back.

In 2010, the dynamic was much different. In the training sessions and rehearsals, people were still greeted with pleasure, but it was in the spirit of “well met” rather than “thank god you’re here.” There was a sense of purpose and competence. They were people confident that their backs are covered: by the union, by the community, and most importantly by the people they work with every day.

This is not entirely due to the civil disobedience tactic. I’ve heard some interesting rumors about developments in Local 1’s internal organization, but since I’ve no experience with these matters, let’s leave it with: there’s more going on than just civil disobedience.

The dispute with the Hyatt hotel chain does seem to be coming to a head. UNITE HERE members have voted to authorize a strike. With the settlement of the civil war between UNITE HERE and SEIU / Workers United, the union seems pretty well positioned to defend its members position, if not win more. The most disturbing news was a comment by the President of UNITE HERE Local 2, Mike Casey: “The hotel industry is comprised of some pretty clueless decision makers. They turn over so much that they don’t learn from history, and make the same mistakes over and over again.” Management that is unstable and expendable tends to regard employees as even more expendable. At worst, this suggests a period of guerilla labor war before any settlement, and quite possibly more civil disobedience.

At least three Chicago DSA members were among those who sat down in the street on July 22 though none of us, I think, were among those privileged to be arrested. There were several DSA members in the crowd supporting the sit-down, as well. And we did a small postcard mailing of a few hundred directed primarily at our database for the neighborhood of the Hyatt Regency.

Author: rmichaelroman

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