As a strike against 25 downtown Chicago hotels entered its fourth day on Monday, managers at some locations were scrambling to keep operations running and guests were complaining about dirty rooms and check-in delays.
Kristian Hulgard, in town from Dallas for the International Manufacturing Technology Show, said it took him eight hours to check into his room at the Palmer House Hilton. The hotel offered free drinks and food to compensate for the trouble, but once he did get in, around midnight, he discovered the room had not been cleaned.
"All in all, it's not that big a deal," Hulgard said Monday morning as he waited outside the Loop hotel to board a bus that would take him and his colleagues to McCormick Place for the convention, which was expected to bring 114,000 people to the city this week. "But when you've paid $300 a night, you want something like that to work, of course."
Thousands of housekeepers, doormen, cooks and other hotel employees have been on strike since early Friday morning at 25 downtown hotels as they negotiate new contracts. Their primary demand is year-round health insurance for colleagues who get laid off during the slow winter season.
Their union, UNITE HERE Local 1, called the strike a week after contracts at 30 hotels expired Aug. 31, though it had been warning of a strike for weeks beforehand. The union negotiates contracts with each employer separately. About 6,000 workers are covered by the expired contracts. It isn't clear how many workers have walked off the job, but guests say they are feeling their absence.
At the Palmer House, guests had to help themselves to clean towels on carts in the hallways, and everything took longer, such as the breakfast line, Hulgard said. Another conventioneer waiting for the bus said there were people serving breakfast who clearly had never worked as servers before.
The Hilton did not respond to a request for comment Monday by deadline. On Friday, the hotel chain said the strike would have "minimal impact" on operations.
In addition to the Palmer House, which has more than 1,600 guest rooms, the Hilton hotels where workers are striking include the DoubleTree Magnificent Mile, Hilton Chicago and the Drake hotel. "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," Paul Ades, senior vice president for labor relations at Hilton, said in an emailed statement last week.
The 25 hotels where workers are striking are listed at chicagohotelstrike.org. They include the Hyatt Regency, JW Marriott and Kimpton and Westin brands. The union said workers will be walking picket lines around-the-clock at all the affected hotels until their demand for year-round health insurance is met.
At the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza in the River North neighborhood, management has been pitching in on everything from room cleaning to bellhop services, minimizing disruption to guests, according to Dale McFarland, the hotel's general manager. McFarland himself spent Sunday changing sheets, taking out trash and making sure rooms were fully stocked with soap, shampoo and glasses.
"We had some temp help come in and our managers have pitched in and we just had to roll up our sleeves and do what we had to do to get the job done," McFarland said Monday.
He said the strike has forced the hotel to "tweak" some amenities, such as curtailing hours at its grab-and-go market and going with buffet-only service at the main restaurant. But McFarland said the hotel has been fully operational for the most part, and that guests have been checking in and getting their rooms with minimal disruption.
"We've been pretty much upfront with our guests and talking to groups and alerting them to what's taking place -- that there may be a little delay with some of the services," McFarland said. "We're holding up fine. We've haven't had to turn rooms away."
Some striking workers have begun to filter back to their jobs, as "a lot of people need to work and provide for their families," McFarland said. Just as doing their work made him appreciate the importance of his staffers, for them to see managers emptying garbage and changing linens has built camaraderie, he said.
McFarland said he supports his employees' decision to strike but hopes for a quick resolution.
"We want our people back," McFarland said. "They're a big part of what we do, they mean a lot to us and that's what we're working towards."
Brian Edwards, 54, a former Chicagoan who now lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., and friends had planned to stay at the Palmer House on Saturday.
The two couples had prepaid for rooms at the Palmer House in Chicago on Saturday night, but when they arrived at about 7 p.m., they were surprised to find a couple of dozen strikers "marching and banging drums," and no room at the inn.
The strikers "politely" parted to let the couples make their way inside, Edwards said, but the reception at the front desk was less accommodating, with no clean rooms available because of the strike. He said the clerk offered to text them when the rooms were ready, but couldn't promise a time.
"She said it could be midnight, it could be not at all," Edwards said. "We just decided to pack it up and drive back to Grand Rapids."
The couples took a refund on the rooms and canceled their dinner reservations at RPM Steak, dining instead at a barbecue restaurant along the way in Porter, Ind. They arrived home at about 1:15 a.m., Edwards said.
Several major hotel groups, including Hyatt and Marriott, expressed disappointment that the union called a strike so early in negotiations.
"Hyatt and Local 1 are not at an impasse on any issue, and further negotiation sessions are set for this week," Michael D'Angelo, Hyatt's vice president of labor relations for the Americas, said in a statement. "In fact, Hyatt has not received the union's complete proposals."
Wages and benefits will remain unchanged until a new agreement is reached, he added.
Hyatt's affected hotels include the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and Park Hyatt, which together have 1,500 employees covered by the expired collective bargaining contract.
"Many colleagues are working, and Hyatt hotels continue their operations and commitment to outstanding guest experiences," D'Angelo said.
Larry Lewis, 39, who has worked as a houseman at the Palmer House for 18 years, said he has been picketing every day since the strike began to demand year-round health insurance. When the hotels get slow, typically from October through March, many employees get laid off and lose their health insurance until they return to work when the weather warms.
"If you're a diabetic, how are you supposed to get your medicine?" he said.
Lewis said he is prepared to strike for as long as it takes.
"If I had to be out here 20 years until they get it right, I don't care," said Lewis, a strike captain. "If you look around and you see these people with me, it's nonstop. They're going to have get it right or we'll be out here."
Several dozen of his colleagues paced in front of the Palmer House on Monday morning chanting "No contract, no peace!" and banged on plastic buckets with drumsticks. Amid the commotion, guests went in and out of the hotel, many of them conventioneers headed to McCormick Place.
Hulgard, despite his subpar experience at the hotel so far, pumped his fist in the air in solidarity as he passed the picketing workers.
"Everybody should get the best treatment as possible," he said. "If these guys want a contract, I wish them good luck to get it."