Picketers in front of the Palmer House Hilton. The strike started on September 7. Credit: Brita Hunegs

On Monday the largest hotel workers’ strike in Chicago history entered its second week with negotiations still under way and many hotel beds still left unmade. Thousands of members of Unite Here Local One, which represents more than 15,000 area hospitality workers, are picketing around the clock at 25 local hotels (a full list is here). The union is calling for year-round health care for workers as part of its new contract. Currently workers laid off for the off-season lose their health care benefits. Meanwhile the workloads of others increase to compensate for their absence.

“There are just certain times of the year they say, ‘Hey we’re going to cut back,'” says Roushanda Williams, a bartender with Hilton Hotels for 18 years. “There’s no real rhyme or reason as to when and how. If you’re laying people off and the occupancy rates at the hotels are still high, somebody still has to do that work. Most times, it falls on the employees that are still working.”

“We don’t feel like people should be punished for Chicago being cold in the wintertime,” says Sarah Lyons, a research analyst for Unite Here, which represents workers in the hospitality industry and a range of other service industries. “Everyone should be able to take themselves and their child, a sick child, to the doctor.”

Not all of the city’s 6,000 hotel workers currently operating under expired contracts are participating in the protest. One bellman, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from his union, says he doesn’t feel well represented by Unite Here. He thinks the union’s demands for a pay rate of $25 per hour and ten sick days annually is too much to ask from small independent operators like his employer, the Ambassador Chicago. “This is really a battle between the bigger hotels and their employees, and everyone is just kind of dragged into it,” he  says.

In for the long haul
In for the long haulCredit: Brita Hunegs

That still leaves thousands of angry employees of chain hotels marching and chanting and filling the sidewalks in front of the entrances. Guests have to duck in and out of picket lines in order to enter or exit the premises, but for now the hotels are insisting that they’re unfazed by the demonstrations.

“The union’s decision to call a strike will have minimal impact on our operations,” Paul Andes, a Hilton Hotels senior vice president for labor relations, said in a statement. “We continue to provide the service and amenities we are proud to offer our guests and clients every day. We are negotiating with the union in good faith and are confident that we will reach an agreement that is fair to our valued team members and to our hotels.”

But Unite Here members seem equally unfazed. Williams says that she and her fellow workers have the determination and energy to keep picketing “until they meet our demands, until we get a fair contract, until our labor dispute is over, however long it takes.”