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Labor & Worker Rights Fri Jul 23 2010

Hyatt Protesters Show Solidarity...With the Police?

Thumbnail image for Policeman_Hyatt_protestersWith arms linked and voices raised, some 200 sitting protesters lined a short run of hot pavement along Wacker Drive yesterday afternoon. A police officer used his megaphone to blast the crowd, which was illegally blocking the traffic usually bustling directly in front of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The demonstrators were taking part in a massive civil disobedience action which occurred simultaneously in fifteen cities across North America. Their purpose was to draw attention to the Hyatt Hotels chain for allegedly forcing layoffs, cutbacks and unfair labor agreements on its employees.

But in a uniquely Chicagoan twist, the demonstration's organizers, a national union called Unite Here that represents over 15,000 hotel and food service workers in Chicago, decided that only 25 protesters would take arrest on Wacker Drive.

In a written statement, President Henry Tamarin of Unite Here Local 1 explained that the murder of Chicago Police Officer Michael Bailey earlier this week demanded a level of leniency toward the officers. In a demonstration of "our solidarity and humanity," the majority of protesters stood and left the road in single file, allowing police to lead away and arrest only 25 demonstrators. Officer Bailey's wake was scheduled for that night, and his funeral service takes place today.

"Our civil disobedience action tonight will be slightly different than we planned, but still meaningful," the union's statement read.

Shouting "We are human beings!" and "Enough is enough," the sitting protesters were surrounded by several hundred witnesses and demonstrators bearing anti-Hyatt signs and hotel uniforms. Bearded rabbis and robed pastors joined the ranks of hotel workers, union members and college students chanting in front of the Hyatt. Even members of SEIU, a competing union with uneasy ties to Unite Here, showed up in solidarity.

About 6,500 hotel workers across Chicago are in the midst of contract negotiations with their employers. Since their contracts expired 11 months ago, these negotiations have deeply alarmed union members, who say that the hotels want to slash health care benefits, impose wage freezes and schedule very small raises into the five-year contract agreements.

Susan Tynan works as a restaurant server in Park Hyatt Chicago, where several of the chain's owners live. Tynan is also a member of Unite Here's negotiating committee, a group that she says meets with Hyatt representatives only once every few months. She is frustrated with the Hyatt's proposals to freeze wages, citing the rapid rise of Chicago's cost of living.

"I'm worried about all of us, but mostly I'm worried about the hourly wage earners. Most of them have families," she said.

Hyatt Hotels is one of the three largest hotel chains in Chicago. Its majority owners are the Pritzkers, a billionaire Chicago family whose best-known member, Penny Pritzker, currently serves as a member of President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

When the company went public in November last year, the deal earned it over $1 billion. The Pritzkers personally cashed out on about $900 million in a single day when they sold several minority stakes. Within the next six months, the Hyatt's share value rose over 65 percent.

Nevertheless, Hyatt enforced a series of layoffs and cutbacks that earned it heavy criticism from labor organizers and hotel industry figures alike. In Boston, the hotel laid off its entire housekeeping staff, firing 98 workers across three sites and replacing them with minimum-wage subcontractors. The workers apparently had to train the subcontractors, not knowing the new hires would displace them. Hyatt has been accused of cutting back staff while forcing the remainder to work overtime at unhealthy paces, even though the hotel industry shows strong signs of economic growth.

"Hyatt has become a symbol for everything standing in the way of economic recovery for everyday people," said Unite Here's press agent Annemarie Strassel. She listed prominent individuals who had prepared to take arrest yesterday, including the director of the Chicago Federation of Labor and a rabbi who had flown in from Boston.

Today's action was the most recent of several major Hyatt protests organized by Unite Here. Last September, 200 protesters were arrested in front of Park Hyatt Chicago. But that event was mirrored only in San Francisco, the one other city with expired contracts at the time. In contrast, yesterday's civil disobedience was repeated in 14 other cities: Honolulu, San Francisco, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Boston, Rosemont, Vancouver, Toronto, Miami, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Santa Clara and San Diego.

"We were ready to go to jail," said Kellyn Lewis, a Northwestern student who'd trained for yesterday's event. He felt disappointed with the union's decision to allow only 25 arrests, but said he understood the need to maintain good relations with Chicago police. Unite Here undoubtedly plans to hold further demonstration as negotiations with Hyatt and other hotels continue.

As the arrestees were led away from Wacker Drive, witnesses cheered and clapped in fervent applause. The protesters soon trickled away, but they left the scene with one last ringing chant: "We'll be back!"

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CC / July 23, 2010 11:43 AM

My good friend is a community organizer who was among the original 200 who intended to get arrested during yesterday's protest (I haven't talked to her today so I don't know if she was part of the "lucky" 25 who were actually arrested). She says that it's a very rare event where she and her colleagues are not in touch with local law enforcement, alerting them about their intentions.

Even though it seems strange that protesters and organizers would work with the police and alert them to their intentions to break the law through peaceful, civil disobedience, it actually makes a lot of sense and ensures that both protesters and police will know what the situation will be like ahead of time (for the most part) and stay safe.

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