Inner Strength

May 2, 2007

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We reported yesterday about a Chicago labor union that's been struggling to organize immigrant workers.

Some entrenched union leaders resist organizing immigrants, because an energized rank and file can threaten their authority.

But a few local unions are moving aggressively to bring low-wage immigrants into their fold.

As part of our “Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders” series, Chip Mitchell continues his two-part report with a look at a union in downtown Chicago.

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For years, José Sarabia and his coworkers had little contact with their union, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 1.

Sarabia: “Sabía la unión porque nos quitaba una cuota...”

All they knew was that it took dues from their paychecks.

Wearing a black vest and bow tie, Sarabia gathers dirty wine glasses at the Radisson Hotel in Chicago's North Loop.

When he started at the hotel in 1995, he worked nights in the laundry room for about $8 an hour. In those days, the percentage of unionized hotel workers downtown was falling. And wages in Chicago's hospitality industry were lagging further and further behind other big cities.

Sarabia: “Los aumentos que se daban eran de cinco centavos...”

Sarabia says Local 1's agreements with hotels provided workers annual raises of just 5 or 10 cents an hour.

Chicago hotel management consultant Jim Mandigo says the hotels got great deals.

Mandigo: “Sweetheart contracts, not as aggressively negotiated as might be expected in a strong union market.”

After a federal monitor started looking into alleged corruption, the union's international office stepped in. It dispatched Henry Tamarin, who had experience reviving hotel unions on the East Coast. Tamarin took over Chicago's Local 1 in late 1999.

Tamarin: “We eliminated the free dues for shop stewards. We also made financial cuts on the staff -- cut the salaries of everybody earning more than $50,000 by 10 percent, took away the leased cars as they expired.”

Local 1's old guard fought to keep its privileges. And some rank-and-file reformers didn't like Tamarin, in part because he'd been imposed from outside.

But that didn't stop him. Tamarin knew the key to rebuilding the union was activating its members.

Local 1 started publishing its newsletter in four languages: English, Spanish, Chinese and Bosnian. It also began hiring a small army of bilingual organizers.

Sarabia: “ ‘Cómo no!' Dice, ‘Yo soy de la unión. Soy organizadora'...”

Within months of the regime change, the Radisson's José Sarabia says an organizer started recruiting him to become a steward. The union trained Sarabia on its contracts and various labor laws.

Sarabia: “Mi trabajo es le dar a la gente que muchas veces no habla inglés, no sabe defenderse...”

He says his main role is lending backbone to coworkers who may not speak English or know how to defend themselves.

Sarabia: “No dejes que te griten, no dejes que te humillen...”

He tells them not to let managers yell at them or humiliate them.

Members elected Tamarin president in 2001. He says the first big test of his approach was replacing hotel contracts due to expire the following year.

Tamarin: “We had made a strategic decision that we were going to use those negotiations to really change the structure of the way we approach negotiations on a large scale.”

Tamarin didn't want the union's leaders to cut the deals on their own. Instead, Local 1 brought in its rank-and-filers.

Mandigo, the hotel management consultant, says it was a whole new ballgame.

Mandigo: “People that sat on the negotiations were people that never sat in the manager's office, if you will, before -- room attendants, the bell staff, the porters.

Chanting: “Se siente! La unión está presente!...”

The next step? Thousands of hotel workers marched down Michigan Avenue during rush hour.

Negstad: “So many of our workers are basically invisible.”

Lars Negstad is Local 1's research director.

Negstad: “They clean the rooms and make them look nice, or they prepare the food. For them to get out on the street and wear their red t-shirts and make the noise is them saying, ‘We're here. We're the ones who make this economy what it is, and we deserve to be in the middle class.' ”

The sides deadlocked. As the union prepared to strike, Gov. George Ryan had to mediate. The hotels agreed to improve medical benefits and immediately raise the hourly pay of most workers by more than a dollar.

Then the tentative contracts went before Local 1 members for ratification.

Vote Tally: “Our new contract for better wages, better benefits and everything: 892 yes, and 153 no.”

The union, all but dead just three years earlier, had demonstrated newfound power.

President Tamarin says organizing of any kind is hard. And when a large portion of your membership could face deportation, it's even harder.

Tamarin: “A tool of any employer to counter organizing efforts is the tool of fear. And certainly for an undocumented worker that is yet an extra element.”

He says it was Local 1's job to help these workers overcome their fears.

Tamarin: “It's the only way you can have a strong union.”

Local 1 has continued gathering strength. Last year it made another credible threat to strike for a new set of contracts. With the fall convention season approaching, the hotels settled. Those pacts have elevated housekeeper wages to more than $13 an hour, up from less than $9 five years ago

Banquet workers, like the Radisson's José Sarabia, are doing even better. Last year he says he grossed $55,000. He and his wife bought their first house. Their daughter finished high school and entered DePaul University.

Sarabia: “La unión es lo mejor que nos ha pasado y estamos orgulloso de ser...”

Sarabia says the union is the best thing that's happened to them. He's proud to be in it.

And he's not alone. Last week Local 1 members, about half of them immigrants, elected Tamarin to another three years as president.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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This report's first half, Tried and True, appeared yesterday. For archival tape this week, thanks to two shows: Labor Express on WLUW, 88.7 FM, and Labor Beat on CAN-TV, Channel 19.