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Union offers to end 10-year strike at Congress Plaza Hotel

Updated: July 2, 2013 7:29AM

The Northwest Side father of three spent 23 years working inside the Congress Plaza Hotel, and then another 10 — 25 hours each week — picketing outside the downtown hotel that has counted President Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Springsteen among its clients.

After a decade of protest, the worker — who didn’t want his name in print because he’s worried about his future at the hotel — said he’s prepared to come back, even at the $8.40 an hour he was making before he and 130 other union workers walked off the job in June 2003.

Why? He needs the money.

“There I have seniority,” said the 54-year-old worker, who has a second job at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers downtown. “If I go to another job, it’s difficult. They will give me one to two days a week and different shifts.”

Striking union employees at the hotel delivered an “unconditional offer to return to work” Wednesday, surprising hotel management and ending what the union calls the longest hotel strike in history.

Management responded to the union by asking how many employees might be interested in returning to work. Peter Andjelkovich, an attorney for the Michigan Avenue hotel, said Thursday afternoon that they’d not yet had a response from the union.

UNITE HERE Local 1 President Henry Tamarin said in a written statement the union has made an unconditional offer to return to work on behalf of the strikers, “but it is unclear whether any strikers will choose to.”

He said the decision to end the strike “was a hard one,” but it comes at the right time.

“The boycott has effectively dramatically reduced the hotel’s business,” Tamarin said. “The hotel treats their workers and customers equally poor and the community knows it. There is no more to do there.”

Tamarin also said the hotel’s “reclusive” owner lives in Geneva and Tel Aviv “and hasn’t been to Chicago since the strike started.”

“We don’t see getting a contract here,” Tamarin said, “and we have many more battles to fight for economic justice.”

The Congress is now trying to sort out “the legal and logistical issues,” Andjelkovich said. He said it was his understanding that workers would return under the terms of their expired 2002 contract.

The union’s offer to end the strike was effective at midnight Thursday, Andjelkovich said, and was not prompted by an offer from the hotel. The last time the two sides sat down to negotiate, he said, was about a year ago.

In its statement, the union pointed out the standard wage for room attendants in Chicago is now $16.40 an hour. Congress hotel room attendants make $8.83 an hour — the city standard when the strike began.

About 130 union employees at the Congress walked off the job in 2003 in part to protest a 7 percent wage cut. Since then, members of UNITE HERE Local 1 have earned a certain amount of notoriety for their seemingly indefinite strike. Political leaders who have walked the picket line in support of the workers include then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, Gov. Pat Quinn and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Experts began to question its effectiveness as early as 2005 — when it had only been “strung out” over two years. The union was criticized for being weak, but its leaders argued they were “fighting tremendous forces and tremendous wealth.”

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