Hotel Strike Marches On to 10-Year Anniversary

     CHICAGO (CN) - The First Amendment protects a union's hardball tactics in its nearly 10-year struggle with downtown Chicago hotel, a federal judge ruled.
     Unite Here Local 1, which represents housekeepers and other employees of the downtown Chicago Congress Plaza Hotel, began a strike on June 15, 2003.
     With the 10-year anniversary of the strike fast approaching, union members still picket outside the hotel daily.
     In 2008, the union stepped up its activities and began sending delegations to visit Congress Hotel customers and personally request them to take their business elsewhere or sign a pledge of support for the union. In one five-month period, the union sent out more than 500 delegations.
     These activities led the hotel to face canceled contracts with the Chicago International Film Festival, the NeoCon trade show, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, the WordCamp conference, and the American Tango Institute.
     America's Next Top Model also took its casting call elsewhere, and the International Housewares Association (IHA) canceled its reserved room blocks after the union made flyers impugning the reputation of restaurants owned by celebrity chef Rick Bayless.
     In a subsequent federal complaint, the hotel accused union members of using illegal methods to persuade customers to find another hotel.
     U.S. District Judge John Tharp Jr. granted the union summary judgment Monday, however, after finding its activities protected by the First Amendment.
     "In this case, the union's use of telephone calls, letters, and emails (and to a lesser extent, blog posts and social networking websites, to the extent attributable to the Union) to communicate with hotel customers, their affiliates, and the public at large, does not transform what would otherwise be protected speech into unlawfully coercive speech," Tharp wrote (parentheses in original).
     Though the hotel claims that the union's in-person delegations made some of the hotel's customers feel "'harassed,' that does not make the conduct 'coercive' or 'threatening' with respect to the neutrals' business," Tharp added.
     The food safety flyer that the union made and distributed at Bayless-owned restaurants is "more problematic," especially because the flyer did not state any message about the union's labor dispute, according to the ruling.
     "The only message that the union was communicating was the implicit warning that if Mr. Bayless did not cave in to the union's demands for a meeting, or did not work to convince IHA to boycott the hotel - regardless whether he actually was persuaded by the union's message - he would risk having his restaurants harmed by the widespread dissemination of unflattering publicity not about his position on the Hotel strike but about the 'safety' of his restaurants," Tharp added (emphasis in original).
     He found, nevertheless, that "restricting this expression would create a First Amendment conflict."
     Because the health violations were public records, obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, the flyers "came close, but did not cross the line into conduct the First Amendment would not protect," Tharp wrote.