Concessions employees at United Center walked off the job Sunday after their union voted to authorize the action in January.
The strike was planned during a Chicago Bulls home game and days ahead of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament. The 650 workers have been negotiating a union contract amid health insurance concerns and complaints over labor law violations.
Unite Here Local 1, the union that represents United Center hospitality employees and more than 16,000 hospitality workers in Chicago and northwest Indiana, passed signs, noisemakers and stickers to the dozens of strikers outside the venue where they work. Union representatives said the number of strikers was “in the hundreds over the day.”
Chicago-based food service provider Levy said in a statement Sunday that there will be a limited menu in concessions and no service at Queenie’s, the Stadium Club and the Ketel One Club during the strike. Workers told the Tribune that Levy hired temporary workers once the union voted to go on strike.
Tawanda Murray, who has been working at the United Center for 28 years, said she was on strike because of her concerns about health insurance. She said Levy gives her limited access to health care because of her preexisting high blood pressure. The plan she has now only lets her see a doctor eight months out of the year.
Murray, 58, said she supports her daughter who is in college, and is concerned that she does not have access to a pension. She told the Tribune if she can’t support her daughter, “do I go out and tell her she can’t graduate?”
Jamie O’Neill has been working at the United Center for 33 years, and said she has “nothing to show for it” because she does not have a pension to rely on when she retires. The 60-year-old stand manager for This Little Goat concession stand said her limited access to health insurance covered a foot surgery she had postponed taking care of, but did not cover the physical therapy needed to recover from it. O’Neill said she paid for that out of pocket.
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O’Neill pointed out that concession employees at other Levy venues, such as Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field and Navy Pier, have access to health benefits and pensions. “We just want what they have,” she said.
Founded in 1978, Levy provides food and beverage in sports and entertainment venues nationwide, including at the United Center and Wrigley and Guaranteed Rate fields. The company has a minority interest in Boka Restaurant Group, which includes well-known Chicago restaurants like Girl & the Goat and GT Prime.
Maria Hernandez, an organizer for Unite Here Local 1, said negotiations between the union and Levy are going “clearly not well,” citing the need for a strike. She said workers want the same benefits that other employees have at the other venues and said the choice is up to Levy.
In the statement, Levy also said it has gone through more than 20 negotiation meetings with the union in the past year, and is ready to provide some of the union’s demands, including a more expansive health care plan and pension.
The latest offer to union workers allows them to pool their hours across the United Center, Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field and reduce the hours needed to qualify for health care coverage, a Levy spokesperson said. The proposed health care plan provides coverage to approximately 85% of their employees, “effectively allowing individuals who work at least one shift a week to have access to health care,” the spokesperson said. Levy’s offer includes a $4 to $5 wage hike, a minimum $28 per hour wage for tip-guaranteed positions, and a $20 per hour starting wage.
The spokesperson told the Tribune the company “cannot understand” why the latest offer has not been approved by the union to bring a vote to the employees. The spokesperson said Levy will not agree to the union’s request for new members and for a different health plan subsidized by Levy.
The next time the union will meet with Levy will be on Tuesday, a day before the Big Ten Tournament begins at the United Center.