O'Hare restaurant workers walk off job in midst of holiday travel

SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Restaurant and concessions workers at O’Hare International Airport announced a strike Thursday just ahead of a busy holiday travel weekend.

The workers warned holiday travelers last week that their trips could be affected by a possible strike after representatives from Unite Here Local 1 and HMSHost remained far apart in the union’s ongoing contract negotiations, according to union spokesman Noah Carson-Nelson.

Despite the workers walking off the job and picketing outside airport terminals, the restaurants are “fully staffed and operating smoothly,” an HMSHost spokesman told the Chicago Sun-Times. The company, which runs venues at the airport including Starbucks, Chili’s, The Publican Tavern, Wolfgang Puck Express and Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera, said it plans to keep restaurants open throughout the holiday season.

The workers are asking for more affordable health insurance and higher wages. About 42 percent don’t enroll in insurance plans offered by HMSHost because they can’t afford it, according to the union. About 25 percent said that in the past year, a family member had not received doctor’s care, prescription medications, or other medical treatment because the family needed the money to buy food, clothing, or pay for housing.

“My coworkers and I need a contract that protects our health, our jobs, and our families. We are going to keep up the pressure on HMSHost until we get it,” said Boddrick Barnes, a cook at HMSHost and union negotiating committee member.

HMSHost had said last week it was hopeful an agreement would be reached soon after a “productive” negotiating session on Dec. 14.

“Unite Here Local 1 continues to threaten temporary walkouts at HMSHost’s restaurants at Chicago O’Hare, inflicting unnecessary stress on holiday travelers over issues best resolved at the bargaining table,” a spokesman for HMSHost said Thursday in an emailed statement. “It is unfortunate that Local 1 seems determined to inconvenience travelers despite our continued progress at the bargaining table.”

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation said the CDA is “closely monitoring today’s events, and these actions will not disrupt operations at O’Hare International Airport in any way.”

More than 1,200 bartenders, baristas, cooks, servers and other workers represented by Unite Here Local 1 voted in favor of authorizing the possibility of a strike by 84 percent, Carson-Nelson said. The Dec. 7 vote authorized the union’s negotiating committee to call a strike at any time.

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