The AHA and the Chicago Hotel Strike
On September 7, Chicago’s UNITE HERE Local 1 announced a strike at 25 downtown hotels, including the venues for the AHA’s annual meeting in January 2019. With our meeting only four months away, we found ourselves in an unusual situation, lacking both the critical immediacy of a strike on the eve of the meeting and the decision-making luxury of having a full year to decide what to do, as was the case the last time we met in Chicago. Our staff and elected leadership agreed that we could not, would not, meet in a hotel in the midst of a strike undertaken in the context of a normal collective-bargaining relationship.
This decision compelled action along two vectors. First and foremost, we had to monitor the situation closely, through multiple media sources and diverse networks. Contractually, our relationships were with our hotels, the Chicago Hilton and Towers and the Palmer House Hilton, which are covered within one collective bargaining relationship with their unions. We therefore immediately informed our sales representatives, in Chicago and nationally, that we would have to explore alternate venues if the strike continued and not meet in struck hotels. We were not yet certain how long we could wait before making the decision to move the meeting to another location rather than risk the possibility of the strike continuing into January.
Such a decision cannot be taken lightly. Hence the second line of consideration and action: seeking advice from our general counsel about the details of the contract and relevant portions of Illinois law, and searching for an alternative venue. The AHA generally has good contracts with hotels that include language about labor conditions and the implications of a strike. There was little doubt, however, that breaking the contract would have severe financial consequences. Moreover, moving the conference beyond hailing distance of Chicago could have implications for members who had already made airline reservations, built vacation plans around New Year’s in Chicago, or were on sessions focused partly on local issues that we hoped would draw an audience beyond our guild. Our local arrangements committee had worked hard on events that would make this a Chicago or even Midwestern meeting.
There was little doubt that breaking the contract would have severe financial consequences for the Association.
Our first concrete decision was to postpone meeting and housing registration, scheduled to open September 12. Attendees often make decisions about accommodations when they register, and separating these activities would have been difficult logistically. Moreover, we did not want to solicit reservations at hotels in the midst of a sanctioned strike. Secondarily, we cut off negotiations for a future annual meeting in Chicago, informing the city’s convention bureau that we could not have such conversations during a strike.
On September 11, therefore, we posted the following notice on the annual meeting page of our website:
On September 7, 2018, UNITE HERE announced a strike against 25 hotels in Chicago. We are postponing the opening of registration and housing for the 133rd annual meeting. AHA staff are monitoring the situation closely and will notify members as to the progress of the ongoing negotiations. We are hoping for a rapid resolution to this dispute.
Those hopes were not unrealistic. We had a good sense of the schedule for bargaining sessions and were aware that the main issue on the table involved health care for workers laid off during the slack winter months. This seemed to us, and other observers, an issue that could be resolved without massive contractual alterations, changes in work rules, or other roadblocks. We also knew that our hotels were struggling to provide standard levels of service during the strike, with the fall convention season already in swing.
In the days after September 10 (our first workday following the walkout), we conducted telephone meetings with our hotel representatives every few days and explored other avenues of information about progress in the negotiations. We informed management at our hotels on September 15 that we would have to begin exploring alternatives if a settlement did not come soon; four days later, AHA staff identified alternatives to explore for availability and capacity.
On September 20, we learned that the Marriott and Starwood hotels (now under one ownership) had reached an agreement with the union; smaller properties followed within a few days. Conventional wisdom among all observers was that this unprecedented “citywide” (though really just downtown) strike would follow “pattern bargaining,” a practice in which an initial contract creates a domino effect, as each site adapts that general framework to the specifics of its work arrangements. Given that the strike apparently concerned mostly benefits rather than work rules, we grew optimistic that Hilton would settle—but still continued to explore those other options. When the 11th hotel (by then out of 26) settled on September 26, that optimism grew, but after discussion, we decided to continue the postponement of registration and housing. Despite our near certainty that the strike would end in plenty of time for us to organize our meeting, we did not consider it appropriate to take reservations during a strike.
We informed management at our hotels that we would have to begin exploring alternatives if a settlement did not come soon.
We learned on September 29 that union members had voted to ratify an agreement with our conference hotels.
I offer this rather prosaic narrative, bereft of the interpretive framework and commentary that is normally appropriate to historical work, in the interest of transparency. It is important for our members to know what decisions had to be made, and why we made the choices that we did. I cannot estimate what the costs of moving the conference might have been. Given our attorney’s reading of contract language and state law, the sum due to the hotels would have entailed negotiation. Other costs would have been involved as well, in addition to the likelihood of lower attendance based on the experience of a small handful of our peer organizations that had faced comparable situations.
Social media was the easiest way to update our constituencies, but we also used other sources of communication, as we recognize that many of our members do not participate in that environment. We delayed sending our digital newsletter, Fortnightly News, twice in order to accommodate possible updates. In each case, the newsletter informed readers of the current status of registration and housing, and the reasons for the decisions that we were making.
Many members will disagree with our response to the labor situation at our hotels. Some will no doubt consider it inappropriate to declare to hotels that we would break a contract in the case of an active strike. Others might agree with a tweet that urged the AHA to state public support for the union and the strike, after the AHA tweeted our decision to postpone registration during the strike. I have written before in these pages that if the AHA doesn’t from time to time provoke debate and disagreement among members, we’re probably not doing anything worthwhile. In this case, even “not doing anything at all” would have been controversial.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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