Chicago hotels look to avoid labor union strike amid recovery

Hotel managers may argue they don’t need as many workers to run their properties with the COVID-fueled advent of new practices like mobile check-in and more guests opting out of daily room cleaning. Owners — many of whom are still trying to recoup hefty losses from 2020 and 2021 — may also balk at union pay-hike demands as higher costs of supplies and other goods squeeze their profits.

Net cash flow last year through October at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, for example, was running at just more than half of its 2019 level, while the W Chicago in the Loop posted similar numbers during the 12 months ended in September compared with its full-year 2019 figures, according to Bloomberg data. Spokesmen for both hotels did not respond to requests for comment.

Yet labor leaders will likely negotiate from a position of strength because many hotels still can’t find enough workers for housekeeping and other service-related jobs. A September survey of 200 hotels by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that 87% of respondents were experiencing a staffing shortage. Many workers left the industry for other jobs when the pandemic shuttered hotels and have not returned.

Unite Here Local 1, the union that led the 2018 strike and represented more than 3,700 Chicago hotel workers as of 2021, will likely have more negotiating leverage to push for higher wages, increased benefits and new workplace rules, says Robert Bruno, a labor studies professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But after so much upheaval in the hospitality sector over the past three years, both sides will also have to come to an understanding about the post-pandemic Chicago hotel experience for guests, he says.

“Should there be first-class room service? Should there be a full catering staff? Should rooms be cleaned on

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