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Long Strike at Chicago Hotel Pits Jew Against Jew

Nearly six years after the housekeepers and dishwashers at the Congress Plaza Hotel first went on strike, the enormous hotel here on Chicago’s lakefront shows the marks of being a battle zone in America’s labor wars.

Outside, the workers who went on strike in 2003 have kept up a nearly constant picket line in front of the hotel, yelling at guests who choose to enter. Inside, the lobby of this historic hotel — with its terra-cotta mosaic ceiling — was eerily empty on a few recent days at check-in time, and the restaurant on the lakefront was closed. Upstairs, in room 408, the grand, high ceilings remain, but the molding around the floor and ceiling was chipped, the towels and pillows were visibly worn, and the amenities were limited to a few Styrofoam cups next to a bag of generic coffee.

Battle Zone: The lake-front Congress Plaza Hotel has a mezzuza on its door, but has been the target of protests by rabbis in Chicago. Image by NATHANIEL POPPER

The Congress has been caught in a costly and seemingly intractable labor battle that has drawn in the city’s labor leaders, its mayor and, before he assumed the presidency, Barack Obama, who has marched twice with the striking workers.

This fight, though, has taken on its fiercest and most unusual form within the city’s Jewish community. The hotel is controlled by Albert Nasser, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist with residences in Geneva and New York. To run the day-to-day operations at the Congress, Nasser brought in Shlomo Nahmias, an Israeli-born businessman who has put up mezuzas on the hotel’s doors and won public support from his Orthodox rabbi for the hotel’s battle with its striking workers.

“You do not find in Chicago one hotel that has mezuzas on every door,” Nahmias told the Forward proudly in a short interview in his office, just upstairs from the lobby.

Nahmias’s foe — the local branch of the hotel union Unite Here — is itself led by a longtime Jewish labor leader who put a young Jewish organizer in charge of the strike when it first began. Since then, the workers — most of them immigrants from Latin America — have received growing support from Jewish communal organizations and rabbis around the city, who have criticized the conduct of the hotel’s management. Just this spring, a high school student who had learned about the strike through his synagogue convinced his school to move the senior prom from the controversial hotel. The strike has become the clearest available case study in the conflicting ways in which Jews approach labor issues today. It is enough to leave some of the workers in the middle of it thoroughly confused.

“I don’t understand,” said Imelda Martinez, a 44-year-old single mother who worked as a housekeeper at the 850-room hotel for eight years before the strike. “The people from the Jewish church come and they support us and give us food. But the owner is the same religion. I can’t understand this guy.”

Martinez’s story provides the basic background for the strike. Back in 2002, she was making $8.83 an hour for her work changing the sheets and scrubbing down the bathrooms. When the citywide contract between the hotels and unions expired in 2002, the rest of the unionized hotels in the city agreed to a new contract with a significant wage increase. The Congress, which had left the citywide contract a decade earlier but adhered to its terms, decided to unilaterally cut wages and freeze health care contributions for its employees. A few months later, the hotel’s 130 union employees voted to strike.

Today, Martinez works 25 hours a week on strike duty. She receives $225 each week in striker’s benefits for the time she spends on the picket line. She fits those hours in during the early morning and at night, before and after her second job as a housekeeper at the nearby Sheraton hotel. There she receives $14.60 an hour, the citywide union wage for housekeepers, and nearly twice what the same workers at the Congress are receiving. Martinez and her co-workers say they often consider ending their work on the strike — only 60 of the original 130 strikers remain on the picket line — but the anger drives them on.

“People say, ‘Get another job,’” said Ruben Sanchez, 54, who worked as a banquet server at the Congress for 22 years before the strike. “That’s not the point. It’s that we can’t let this happen; we can’t let them get away with this.”

“After 22 years, I was making $11 an hour and he said it was too much,” Sanchez said during a break from marching on the picket line. “We’re the little people who come and do our best and cook for them. And he didn’t think it was enough.”

Workers such as Sanchez and Martinez have become regular guests in a few of Chicago’s synagogues, where they have shared their experiences during weekend and holiday services. These visits have been organized by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a local left-leaning advocacy group that has integrated the strike into many of its programs — including its teen service program and the Hebrew school curriculum that is used by some 30 local synagogues. The hotel has particular resonance for JCUA because it is just a few doors down from the JCUA offices inside the city’s Jewish museum. Jane Ramsey, executive director of JCUA, said, “It’s a bad example that helps make real what our Jewish values are.”

At the hotel, Nahmias says that JCUA’s programs have not eroded support for the hotel’s mangement from much of the city’s Jewish community.

“I have parties from Chicago synagogues more than ever,” Nahmias told the Forward while walking through the empty lobby. “There are five or six rabbis that are calling themselves community organizers that should stick to their business — because they don’t know the facts and they are hurting innocent people.”

The rabbi at Nahmias’s synagogue, the Sephardic Congregation in Evanston, Ill., has publicly supported the hotel management. Rabbi Michael Azose said that his support for the hotel grows, in part, out of his personal relationship with Nahmias.

“He’s a member here, and a wonderful member,” Azose said. “People love him. He’s friendly and amicable. Except when people start pushing his buttons.”

Azose said he believes that one of the sticking points in the feud has been an old-fashioned Israeli streak of stubbornness.

“He comes from Israel,” Azose said of Nahmias, “and he doesn’t like to be told what he has to do if, legally, he is not obligated to do it.”

The strikers say that Nahmias, who lives in the hotel, taunts them when he walks his dog, flashing an ironic thumbs up each time he passes them. For many involved, the endurance of the strike, with its spiraling economic ramifications, defies any rational explanation.

“When I started, it was different,” Martinez said. “I thought it was maybe five or six months. I didn’t expect this. I don’t understand it.”

On June 15, the striking workers will hold an event on the broad sidewalk in front of the hotel, commemorating the sixth anniversary of the strike. Since the last anniversary, all the participants have significantly ramped up their activity in ways that have changed the terms of the fight.

This past January, the union, Local 1 of the national hotel union, Unite Here, moved beyond the picket line and began sending out workers to speak with the big conventions that book rooms at the Congress — with immediate results. In February, the International Housewares Association canceled 500 of the 600 rooms that it had booked at the hotel for its March convention, according to a list that has been publicly circulated by the union. More recently, a convention for residential designers canceled its large room block at the hotel.

Years of Picketing and Praying: Dan Miller, an organizer for Unite Here in Chicago, has brought striking workers to speak at his synagogue. Image by NATHANIEL POPPER

“Since December, we’ve moved more business out of the hotel than we have in a long time,” said Jessica Lawlor, who was brought in by Unite Here last year to serve as the Congress Hotel boycott coordinator.

A lawyer for the hotel, Peter Andjelkovich, said he would not discuss the hotel’s business.

JCUA brought a dozen rabbis to sit on the dais at the strike anniversary event last summer, and a leader from a local Orthodox congregation led the crowd in chanting, “shande,” Yiddish for “shame.” Since then, JCUA formed a Worker Justice Strategy Team to focus exclusively on the issue. At a recent meeting held by the union, four members of the Jewish community showed up to see how they could help. Jim Newman, a retired physician, said that he was there because he cared about labor issues, but also because he saw a danger of antisemitism.

“Some of us think that if we didn’t come to the aid of the workers, then there’s a question of antisemitism — the idea that all Jews who run businesses are horrible to workers,” Newman said. “Here are some Jews helping the workers. We think it’s to some extent fighting antisemitism and the stereotype that Jews rip people off.”

Andjelkovich, the hotel lawyer, said that the desire to turn the strike into a religious issue is “terrible. It’s not a religious issue, it’s a business issue, and the owners have done nothing illegal or immoral.”

JCUA has not restricted its hotel work to the Congress. The most famous Jewish hoteliers in Chicago, and perhaps the world, are the Pritzkers, the owners of the Hyatt chain. In 2006, a delegation from JCUA met with Hyatt executives to ask them to resolve a negotiation with a labor union that had reached an impasse (the situation was eventually resolved).

With the Congress Hotel, JCUA delivered a letter to the hotel last summer, signed by seven local rabbis, asking for a meeting with Nahmias. When the JCUA delegates handed it to Nahmias in his office, he ripped it up in front of them. Nahmias said the rabbis were coming from a place of ignorance.

“They are taking the side of the union,” Nahmias told the Forward. “In my religion, which is Judaism, rabbis don’t have the right to convict without knowing the issues.”

Nahmias has not taken the opposition sitting down. After a pro-union city alderman blocked the hotel’s plan to add a four-floor expansion, the hotel sued both the city and the alderman. In May, the hotel scored a victory when a judge said that the city had no right to block the expansion. Nahmias’s rabbi, Azose, wrote to members of the planning commission in March, expressing his desire to see the expansion approved.

“I felt that I should inform you of my community’s dismay at the initial rejection of the permit,” Azose wrote in the fax, a copy of which was given to the Forward. “Many of us who have investigated the matter have utter disgust for the deceptive nature and outright lies that have been spewed from the propaganda of Unite.”

Azose said that long before the fight at the Congress, he was opposed to unions. But he also said that he was impressed by Nahmias’s relations with employees when he took a tour of the hotel.

“We were walking through the halls and there was a mess, and he used some term of endearment with the maid — I don’t remember the phrase, but something like, ‘Sweetheart, will you take care of that?’ And she happily did it,” Azose said of his tour. “I was very happy to see the way he treated them, and the way they treated him.”

Current employees of the hotel said that the strike and its attendant publicity have not helped their situation. During a break from cleaning a room, a housekeeper who asked to remain anonymous said that she had been brought in by a temporary agency and is paid $8.25 an hour — lower than the $8.83 that Congress housekeepers were making when the strike began. She said she receives no health care coverage and finds out each Friday how many days of work she will have the next week. She said that Azose’s picture of rosy employee relations was not true for the people she knows.

“Everybody is waiting on something better, but until then we have no choice but to take the abuse — because that’s what it is, abuse,” she said.

Andjelkovich said that the wages of housekeepers were determined by the temporary agency Labor Nation. “We don’t know what the agency pays them,” Andjelkovich said. Labor Nation did not respond to requests for comment.

The Congress Hotel does have union agreements with a few smaller employee groups, such as the security guards. But for the largest bloc — the housekeepers and restaurant workers — Andjelkovich said that the Congress cannot afford to pay the same wages as hotels in the union pact.

“Those hotels are major hotels, and they are in a different category,” Andjelkovich said. “We are an independently owned, smaller hotel.”

Thirty-nine hotels are in the pact with the union, including a number of smaller independent hotels. Arnold Karr, head of the hotel association that negotiates with the union, the Hotel Employers Labor Relations Association, said that other nonunion hotels tend to have higher wages than the Congress, generally between $12 and $14 an hour for housekeepers.

It is clear from financial documents that have emerged during union negotiations that the Congress’s cuts have arisen partly from its weak financial position. According to these documents, the hotel lost $4.9 million in 2002 and $5.9 million in 2003, when the strike began. All of which has left a question in the minds of many as to why the owners have been willing to persevere at the hotel.

Andjelkovich would not comment on the losses, but said, “Obviously the owners have purchased the hotel as an investment.”

Azose said it was his understanding that when Nahmias was hired, the hotel was a losing venture, and the owners looked to Nahmias to fix up the hotel so that they could sell it. Given the hotel’s prime position on Lake Michigan, the value of the property could increase significantly if Chicago manages to win the 2016 Summer Olympics. But Azose said that the owners are also cognizant of their responsibility to Nahmias.

“It they do sell it, then what does Shlomo do?” Azose said. “They are also thinking of Shlomo, I think.”

On the other side of the ledger, many Chicagoans have questioned why the union has been willing to stick with the strike, given that Nasser does not own any other hotels.

“I question what value the union has in continuing this,” said Karr, of the hotel association. “Is it symbolic or what?”

Dan Miller, an organizer at Unite Here, said that if the union gave in, it would signal a fatal weakness.

“If one, really, really rich guy can do this, there’s no limit,” Miller said.

In contract negotiations, the hotel has not budged from its positions in 2002, according to the union. Andjelkovich would not comment on the negotiations. In the last meeting between the union and the hotel, last summer, the union says that the hotel was unwilling to spend any more on employee health care than it had in 2002, driving up the cost of a family health plan to $1,300 a month for an employee.

The lower costs do not appear to have significantly driven down room prices. On the Web site, a night in a standard room at the Congress for a recent Friday was less than local luxury hotels, but more than a number of other downtown hotels that are in the union pact (see chart). Guests rate the Congress lower than similar hotels on the Web site

The Congress was not always such a cynosure of controversy. The 14-story structure was built for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and it sits at the epicenter of the city, just across from Lake Michigan and Grant Park, where Obama gave his election-night speech last November.

Before the current owners bought it, the hotel was owned by another family of Jewish hoteliers, the Picks. Eli Fishman, director of the Chicago Jewish Labor Committee, said that when he was growing up, the Pick-Congress had a kosher kitchen and “was the spot for classy bar mitzvahs and weddings.”

Karr recalled the Pick-Congress as “a fine, quality-operating hotel. Really, very highly regarded.”

The Pick-Congress participated in the citywide pact with the hotel union and had good enough relations with unions that it served as the founding site for the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 1974. A plaque commemorating that event used to be right outside the front door, where the strikers picket. The plaque was recently moved to a more discreet place inside the hotel, leaving a discolored spot where it used to be.

The hotel was bought in 1987 by a consortium of investors led by Nasser. Nasser is related to the wealthy, Syrian-Jewish Safra family, and he has run the hotel with help from other family members. The mortgage for the hotel came from a bank controlled by relatives. The Nassers have investments around the world, including a stake in Gelmart Industries, an apparel company with factories in the Philippines. Azose, who has briefly met the owners a few times, said, “We’re talking about fabulously wealthy people here.”

Albert Nasser is a board member of the International Sephardic Education Foundation, which aims to provide educational opportunities for young Sephardic Jews in Israel. Azose said that during one of his meetings with the owners of the hotel he heard about the sort of Jewish philanthropy the Nassers do. “One of them told me that when there’s some problem in the Jewish world, they get together with other fabulously wealthy gentlemen and take care of it. They see it as their job if there is a Jewish problem.”

Andjelkovich said that Nasser would not speak for this article because the corporation, not Nasser, runs the Congress. Nasser, though, described himself as a heavily involved chairman when he was deposed as part of the hotel’s bankruptcy proceedings in 1998. He said that each week he received financial statements from Nahmias, and he would often respond by calling for more cost-cutting.

“Many times I took things off because I think it’s not necessary, or, if he wanted to make a certain contract, I squeezed him to bargain a little bit more,” Nasser said in the deposition. (The hotel ended the bankruptcy proceedings after it emerged that the owners had been trying to sell the hotel.)

Workers who are on strike say that after Nasser and his consortium bought the hotel, the treatment of employees got worse. Among other changes, the new management ended the hot meals that were given to employees during breaks.

“The employee cafeteria was always rundown and dirty, and had the cheapest stuff they could find,” said Miller, the young Unite Here organizer who was originally brought in to lead the strike. “At the Hyatt they would have hot meals. At the Congress they would get shriveled up pizza puffs.”

The cause of the workers has attracted support from far beyond the Jewish community. Obama visited the picket line twice — one time when he was a state senator, and another time when he was running for president in 2007. He told the workers that, “as long as I am a U.S. senator, and when I am president of the United States of America, you are going to have a friend in the White House.”

The strike has become an enduring part of the daily lives of the employees who walked out. On a Friday afternoon, strikers marched in the same circle they have treaded for nearly six years; many wore headphones to chase away the tedium. The wooden handles on the signs they hold are worn and cracked.

Room Visit: Towels and pillows were visibly worn and the ame-nities were limited to generic coffee in the eerily empty hotel. Image by NATHANIEL POPPER

Efrain and Leticia Cortina, a married couple, are both out on strike. Efrain Cortina, 51, said that although the family used to go on vacation, now there is neither the money nor the time for that. In order to work the strike and attend meetings with local officials, Cortina forgoes overtime work at his second job, in the kitchen at a local Tootsie Roll factory.

But Cortina, who came to Chicago from Mexico when he was 15, says that the strike has strengthened his belief in the power of working people. It also has changed his views on religion. Cortina was raised Catholic, but in the past few years he has made numerous visits to synagogues with JCUA. Cortina says that initially he was filled with questions because of the Jewish commandments about the poor.

“I asked the rabbi why Mr. Shlomo don’t follow what the word of God says,” Cortina said, describing a conversation he had about the Congress Hotel management.

“The rabbi said, ‘Not all Jewish people follow what the Bible says,’” Cortina remembered.

Since then, Cortina said he has been increasingly drawn to Judaism: He likes the moral language of the Bible, and the participatory nature of the services.

“In my religion, the father is in the front, and everyone just listens,” Cortina said.

Cortina said that recently he had thought about converting to Judaism, and asked a rabbi if there was a synagogue near his house on the poorer South Side of Chicago. Cortina’s wife, standing nearby, gave an exasperated nod of disapproval. But Efrain Cortina continued on.

“Before when I was driving, I would pass a white person on the street and not think nothing,” he said. “Since I went to synagogue, I notice those people I’m passing. It made me think about other people.”

Contact Nathaniel Popper at [email protected].

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