United Center concessions workers authorize strike

The labor dispute hits during a busy time on the West Side arena’s calendar, with a strike potentially affecting 700 employees.

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Food Service workers picket outside the United Center to protest labor law violations and abusive behavior by United Center’s concessionaire Compass Levy. Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

Food service workers picket outside the United Center last Dec. 7.

Sun-Times file

Concessions workers at the United Center have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike that could start anytime.

About 700 employees at the United Center are members of Unite Here Local 1, a union representing staff at hotels, casinos and other venues. Unite Here spokeswoman Maria Hernandez said 98% of workers voting on the issue favored a strike.

“We will do whatever it takes to get what is needed,” said Tawanda Murray, an attendant who said she started working at the United Center soon after it opened in 1994. The Gary resident said the principal issues are a “decent living wage and affordable health insurance.”

The workers are bargaining with Levy, part of Compass Group. The union said workers haven’t had a contract in three years. Levy, however, said it and the union mutually agreed to extend the contract in 2020.

The company issued a statement saying it was “discouraged” by the strike authorization, as it said it has agreed to several union demands.

The vote occurred Tuesday night after a Chicago Bulls game and comes during a busy period in the United Center schedule. The West Side arena is hosting three Bulls games, two Chicago Blackhawks games and an Adam Sandler concert over the next 10 days.

The company said the next bargaining sessions are scheduled for Feb. 8 and Feb. 16. But the strike authorization could increase pressure for talks to occur sooner.

The Chicago Sun-Times obtained a letter Levy sent to employees outlining terms of what it called a “fair and generous package” developed over 14 bargaining sessions.

In the letter to workers, Levy said, “In the event of a strike, our plan is to continue to operate the concessions and other food service operations. If team members are not available to staff these operations, we will bring in temporary employees and, if necessary, have supervisors pitch in.”

Levy told workers it has offered to expand health insurance coverage by reducing the annual work hours required to get the benefit and by counting hours people work at other Levy venues, such as Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field.

The employer also said it has offered wage increases, a tip guarantee of $6.50 an hour for some jobs and a ratification bonus that depends on how many hours an employee worked in 2022.

Levy said the union is insisting that the company contribute to Unite Here’s health and welfare fund for all staffers, even those who work few hours or have health coverage elsewhere.

The union also has introduced a pension proposal that would pair with the current 401(k) retirement plan, adding a major new cost, Levy said.

Local 1 took a survey of United Center workers last year that showed many need to visit food pantries or rely on government welfare to make ends meet.

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