Forgive Sam Yolo if he’s not in the mood to celebrate his latest work anniversary.
As of last month, the 53-year-old bellhop — along with a small group of cooks, bartenders, housekeepers and other holdouts — has officially been on strike from the Cambria Chicago Magnificent Mile hotel for an entire year. It’s the longest work stoppage in Chicago since the decade-long Congress Hotel strike from 2003 to 2013.
It hasn’t been easy.
“It’s a tough position to be out of work for a year,” Yolo said. “But we have a very strong unit that is supporting us, and it’s a sacrifice that we have to make.”
Yolo knows something about a strong commitment to a team. Before immigrating to Chicago in 1990 at the age of 24, he lived in Nigeria and served as a member of an elite unit of the Nigerian Army responsible for protecting the president.
“It was definitely a unique experience for me,” Yolo says of his four years as a presidential bodyguard.
He’s spent much of the last two decades in the hospitality service — as a bartender, server and a bellman for several different Chicago hotels.
Back in early September 2018, Yolo was one of thousands of Chicago hotel workers who walked off the job from 26 hotels represented by the union UNITE HERE Local 1. It was the largest mass hotel strike in the city’s history.
The central demands called for a pay increase and year-round health care coverage due to the fact that many hotel workers lose coverage when their hours are cut during the tourist offseason in the winter months. Cambria management agreed to those terms but countered by increasing the workload of housekeepers by 15 percent — from 13 rooms per eight-hour shift to 15.
“None of the other hotels increased the workload, but Cambria did,” said Yolo, a father of four who lives in Homewood. “That is definitely not acceptable. They’re compromising the welfare of these workers’ families and children — and we’re not going to stand for that.”
Thirteen months later, Yolo has not backed down. Some of Cambria’s workers have returned to the job because the financial strain got too great, but 29 of them are still on strike, according to Yolo.
Every day — and occasionally late at night — he and the other strikers can be found picketing in front of the hotel on Superior Street. From 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. they pace back and forth, chanting pro-worker slogans, holding signs aloft and banging drums to get attention.
“Seven days a week. Rain or shine,” Yolo said.
The strike has had some financial impact on the hotel, according to UNITE HERE. The union reported that Cambria has lost $300,000 in business from canceled rooms, relocated events or removed promotional materials.
Still, the hotel — which is part of the international chain Choice Hotels International Inc. and managed by Dallas-based Fillmore Hospitality — won’t budge.
Last month, a group of 29 Ohio state lawmakers sent a letter to the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System — an investor in the joint venture that owns the Cambria — asking it to work to settle the strike. Hoping to add pressure, Yolo and other striking workers drove to Ohio in mid-September to also try to persuade the pension fund.
‘No end in sight’
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Yolo said he’s not thinking about going back to work anytime soon. He’s just taking one day at a time and focusing on picketing.
“Next for us is to keep the strike going. There’s no end in sight until they do right by the employees,” he said.
His resolve has been inspiring, says Vinay Ravi, organizing director of UNITE HERE Local 1.
“Sam is a leader of the strike because of his positivity, passion and unwavering commitment to his co-workers and the fight,” Ravi said.