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Congress Strikes Back

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jul 31, 2007 12:30PM

One of Chicago's newest aldermen, Bob Fioretti (2nd) is taking heat from one of the city's older hotels. The 14-story Congress Plaza Hotel, designed and built to accommodate visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, has been embroiled in a strike with UNITE HERE Local 1 since June 2003. According to Crain's Chicago Business, the hotel, owned by Albert Nasser Shayo, a Syrian globe-trotting businessman with residences in New York, Argentina, and Switzerland, who also owns a Philippines sweatshop that produces ladies undergarments for K-Mart and Wal-Mart, is suing Fioretti for blocking a building permit to add a four-story addition, including a pool, restaurant and health club.

2007_7_congress_windows.JPGAfter a contentious race which saw several spoilers and an eventual runoff, Fioretti allegedly told Congress President Shlomo Nahmias that “he would not issue or approve any permits” until the stike is settled. According to the suit, former alderman Madeline Haithcock had agreed to support the expansion. UNITE HERE did not back a candidate in the first round of voting in the Second Ward, but it's political action committee did run a series of mailers and pickets opposing her re-election. In the run-off, Fioretti was supported by the labor movement, including Local 1. The Congress Hotel is charging that Fioretti is violating federal labor laws by holding up the permit for expansion. A spokeswoman for Fioretti agreed that he is blocking the permit, but suggested that it was due to repeated building code violations. The suit filed by the hotel quotes Fioretti as saying that blocking the permit was a promise that he had made to the union before he was elected.

When a union goes on strike for four years, one has to wonder about the sanity of both the leaders and the membership. In this case, however, we have to side with the workers. The dishwashers, housekeepers, doormen, and waiters are grossly underpaid - members of a union that was recently cleaned up by federal intervention (by a national government that doesn't really take a shine to workers' rights). The union won a significant pay raise from all the other hotels in the area - including such boutique hotels as Allegro and Hotel 71, and placed striking workers from the Congress in better paying jobs elsewhere around the city. The owners of the Congress are crying poverty; claiming that they can't afford to pay what the other hotels are paying (including Ohio House). Don't believe the hype. The main ownership has been in charge since 1987, and in spite of a 1995 bankruptcy decision, they obviously think that owning the Congress is worthwhile. Perhaps if the owners of this property actually gave a damn about the historical significance and the location of their hotel, they might be able to contribute something to our city. Instead they choose to sit on a prime piece of real estate (overlooking glorious Grant Park) and perpetuate a pissing match with Chicago residents.

image via patrick dentler