I spent my afternoon yesterday with 1,000 other demonstrators in front of the Congress Park Hotel on Chicago’s Michigan Ave. – the site of the longest ongoing labor strike in the country. Marking the fifth anniversary of the strike, it was certainly the largest labor demonstration this city has seen in some time.
Some shameful stats: Congress housekeepers currently make $8.83 per hour and are not scheduled to get a raise until 2010. If a housekeeper was “lucky” enough to to work full-time at that wage, he or she would make less than the federal poverty level for a family of three. (By contrast, the standard union wage for a Chicago housekeeper is $13.90 an hour.) Workers also have no access to affordable health insurance benefits and there have been repeated complaints about unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.
It is with no small shame that I add that the Congress is Jewish-owned and operated. (It’s owner, Albert Nasser Shayo is a businessman who lives in Argentina; Shayo’s representative/manager is Shlomo Nahmias, who resides in the hotel with his family.) The Jewish-owned nature of the Congress is palpable and obvious as there are mezuzzot on every room inside the hotel.
I am proud to report, however, that the Jewish presence at the demonstration yesterday was also palpable and obvious. The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs joined the over 1,000 demonstrators who marched in a circle around the hotel over the course of the day. During the program, the crowd heard from a number of labor representatives, local politicians and hotel workers. A bunch of us rabbis also took the stage to pledge the Jewish community’s support of the strike, during which we repeatedly led the crowd in a chant of “What a Shande!” (This and “Si, Se Puerde!” were the two prominent foreign-language chants of the afternoon).
Though Congress workers have been walking the line at the hotel literally every day for the last five years there is, sadly, no end in sight. But as yesterday’s demonstration proved, this effort is mobilizing an increasingly diverse Chicago labor community.
And so the struggle continues. Check out yesterday’s Chicago Trib piece for more on the 5th anniversary doings…