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United Center concessions workers strike

Members of Unite Here Local 1 picket outside the United Center Sunday afternoon before and during the Chicago Bulls-Indiana Pacers game being held at the stadium. The union represents 700 concessions workers who held a one-day strike Sunday to demand better pension and healthcare benefits. The union and Levy Restaurants, which employs the workers, are scheduled to continue negotiations Tuesday.

Michael Puente

Unionized concessions workers hold a one-day strike outside the United Center

Starting Wednesday, the United Center on Chicago’s West Side will play host to the five-day Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament.

It’s a major event for the city with fans from all over the Midwest arriving for the big games. But it’s unclear if concessions workers will be at their usual spots selling food, beer and souvenirs; washing dishes; making meals; or keeping the luxury suites tidy.

Ahead of Sunday’s Chicago Bulls-Indiana Pacers game, workers with Unite Here Local 1 picketed outside the United Center as fans made their way into the game.

“No pizza, no beer, we’re standing right here” and “No justice, no peace” were just a couple of the chants workers voiced while banging on drums and shaking tambourines in front of the big United Center marquee on Madison Street.

“I would love to be in there working today, but I have to stand my ground and fight for what I believe in and keep the fight going until we get what we want,” said 60-year-old Jamie O’Niell who’s been working concessions at the United Center for nearly 33 years but lacks health insurance or a pension. “I have nothing to show for tenure here.”

Another worker, Tawanda Murray, drives to the United Center from Gary, Indiana, about 45 minutes away.

“I’ve been working here for 28 years,” the 48-year-old Murray said. “We come in here. We work very hard. We love our fans. We’re appreciative of the organizations, the Bulls and Blackhawks, but for the company we work for, we want them to give us our fair share of the pie.”

Nearly 700 workers are represented by Unite Here Local 1 and are employed by Levy Restaurants, a subsidiary of Compass Group. Workers have been without a new contract for three years, according to the union.

Last week, WBEZ reported that 98% of the workers voted last month to authorize a strike, and about a week ago, members signed up for the $300-per-week strike benefit from the union.

“Too many times in the last year we have heard hospitality representatives in Chicago say, ‘there is a labor shortage.’ The reality is, there is a good job shortage, and it is in Chicago’s interest to keep a steady, committed workforce with good stable jobs. Workers are striking because it is time to turn stadium jobs into good jobs for Chicago,” said Unite Here Local 1 president Karen Kent, in a statement.

In response to the union’s announcement of the one-day strike, Levy issued its own statement. The company said it has offered a significant package of health benefits and higher wages that is more than double its previous contract, as well as a new pension plan, healthcare plan and additional benefits. Levy claims union leadership has not brought the offer to its members.

The two sides will begin a bargaining session on Tuesday.

“It continues to be our sincere hope to reach a fair agreement that shows our team members how much they are valued. We have plans in place that continue food and beverage service at the United Center,” Levy said in the statement.

Union spokesman Maria Hernandez refutes claims that the company is offering health care coverage.

“There is no health care that they have offered and there is no vote on anything because we haven’t come to an agreement,” Hernandez said. “Levy knows what the workers are asking for: It’s healthcare for everybody and a good pension for them to be able to retire with dignity.”

Michael Puente is a general assignment reporter for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.

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