They marched Downtown last week in the cold, on the day the nation remembered the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

And they wore the “I Am A Man” placards carried by Memphis sanitation workers in the 1968 strike — an event the civil rights leader had come to support as part of a “Poor People’s Campaign” he was waging when murdered.

African-American food and beverage workers at O’Hare Airport, members of the Unite Here Local 1 union, said they chose the somber date to highlight their allegations of discriminatory treatment by city of Chicago concessions contractor HMSHost.

HMSHost denies those allegations, primarily inequity in hiring and promotion of African-American workers into tipped positions. The union says African-American workers, on average, earn 51.8 cents for every dollar earned by white employees in wages and tips. That’s based on fiscal year 2016 data, the most recent full-year statistics available.

The figures were derived from total earnings divided by total hours for both groups. In third quarter 2017, HMSHost reported 338 tipped positions, consisting of servers and bartenders. Of those positions, 48.8 percent were held by whites; 32.5 percent by Latinos; 10.7 percent by African-Americans; and 7.4 percent by Asians.

Overall, whites were 18.4 percent of the 1,270-member workforce; Latinos, 37.6 percent; African-Americans, 28.1 percent; and Asians, 15.3 percent.

“My cousin was hired at a restaurant and told if he wanted to be a server, he had to be a host first. We see others promoted within a few months, but after a whole year, he still couldn’t get promoted to server,” said Feleshia Smith, 27, of Englewood, a barista at O’Hare for five years.

“He finally went every day to sit in Human Resources and continuously ask why he wasn’t being promoted. After two months, they got tired of him and gave him a position. But it shouldn’t have to take that.”

HMSHost vigorously denied the allegations, calling them a ploy to pressure the company during contract negotiations.

“These claims are offensive. HMSHost has an exemplary record of hiring and promoting minorities and a longstanding commitment to Chicago’s minority communities,” said spokesman Eric Herman.

“As the union well knows, the workers are paid according to job classification and tenure, rates set in a contract agreed to by the union. Local 1 is using distorted data, and their tactics are reckless and at odds with the truth.”

The company provided data showing current average hourly rates by ethnic group: Latinos, $13.01 an hour; Asian-Americans, $12.81; African-Americans, $12.24; and whites, $10.46.

However, workers in server and bartender classifications earn the lowest average hourly rates due to potential for tips. According to that 2016 data, tipped workers earned an average of $32.73 per hour with wages and reported tips, compared to $14.56 hour for the average worker in a non-tipped position.

Many workers charged it’s difficult for African-Americans to be promoted from back-of-house positions like cooks and dishwashers to front-of-house — where tips are possible.

“I’ve seen my black brothers and sisters systematically discriminated against when they want to move on to better positions,” said Maria Iniguez Villalobos, 56, of Belmont-Cragin, a server at O’Hare 29 years, and a union steward.

“I handled the case of two black hostesses who applied for server jobs and were denied. The jobs were given to others with less seniority, violating the contract. When I asked why, I was told, ‘They don’t qualify,'” Villalobos said.

After she threatened to file a grievance, the women were given the jobs, she said.

Maria Iniguez Villalobos, 56, of Belmont-Cragin, speaks at a Unite Here Local 1 union protest held Downtown April 4, 2018, where African-American food and beverage workers at O’Hare Airport alleged discriminatory treatment by city of Chicago concessions contractor HMSHost. | Provided photo

“I handled two other cases of a cook and dishwasher who applied to be bartenders and were told they needed licenses. They both went to school and earned their certificates, then were told they didn’t have experience,” Villalobos said.

“One went and got a weekend bartending job, holding two jobs for six months, then re-applied. They still didn’t want to give him the job. We had to file a grievance in order for him to get it. This just isn’t right.”

African-American workers also alleged instances of being called derogatory names by managers, allegations HMSHost called “very serious,” and vowed to investigate.

“It’s important that these disparities at HMSHost are addressed. It’s not about one manager or one comment or one incident. It’s about changing a culture that perpetuates this disparity,” union spokesman Noah Carson-Nelson said.

HMSHost has a licensing agreement with the Chicago Department of Aviation; the city gets a percentage of all sales.

Aviation department spokeswoman Lauren Huffman, asked about the allegations, said the department “does not condone discrimination by its contractors or concessionaires. All these organizations must comply with citywide diversity and equal employment ordinances and policies, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other federal and state laws and regulations.”