November 18, 2011

Students, employees debate merits of Harper Court Hyatt

Hotel employees shared stories of unfair working conditions at Hyatt and Hilton hotels in Chicago at a “teach-in” with students Tuesday night, claiming that similar conditions will exist at the new Hyde Park Hyatt location if the employees are unable to unionize.

The excitement around the development on East 53rd Street often overshadows the project’s darker side, according to fourth-year Brita Hofwolt, a leader of the RSO Southside Solidarity Network (SSN), which organized the event.

“By bringing in the workers, we hope to expose more students to workers’ issues and let them see the face of this new development,” Hofwolt said.

The hotel employees described injuries they sustained on the job while working increasingly long hours under the constant fear of losing their jobs.

“Your body is breaking down, but they just say you should be glad to have a job,” said Jackie Smith, who has been a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency downtown for over 10 years.

The employees also objected that their wages remained low, even as their workloads grew.

“[The hotel managers] don’t care if we’re hurt or not; they just care that the rooms are clean. We are the ones who put the stars on the hotel. We deserve some of that money,” said Doris Price, a longtime employee at the Hilton Drake, which is on the Magnificent Mile.

A particular point of contention was the possible use of public funds for the development. Currently, the Hyatt Corporation is requesting Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds from the city for the construction of the Hyde Park Hyatt.

However, the request for public funds creates a strategic opening, Hofwolt said. “The public has leverage, and the window for that is right now,” she said.

Price also urged students to action.

“Talk to your alderman. Sign a boycott. Let people know what’s going on,” Price said.

Attending students said that the workers’ claims put a human face on the development.

“I’ve never really been aware of the plight of the workers before,” second-year Arielle Moseley said. “When I stay in a hotel with my family, I don’t really think about that.”

The 130-room Hyatt Place hotel is slated to open in 2013 at East 52nd Place and South Harper Avenue as part of the University’s redevelopment of Harper Court.