Negotiations between the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago and UNITE HERE Local 1 have been at a standstill for the past two years. The union, which comprises nearly 130 housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers and other hotel employees, went on strike in 2003. The sudden lack of workers left the hotel in a bind, one that the Illinois legislature only worsened with its passage of an amendment to the state's Employment of Strikebreakers Act.
The amendment, which lawmakers passed in 2003, made it illegal for employers to contract with day-labor and temporary services agencies to meet staffing requirements during a strike. Worse, the Act made violation a criminal offence for which an individual could be fined up to $1,000 and imprisoned for up to a year. This dramatically reduced the hotel's options for dealing with the sudden loss of its workforce.
"The state's efforts to make the hiring of replacement workers a crime is so starkly incompatible with federal labor law ?? 1/2 that we do not understand how a responsible legislature could pass, a responsible Governor sign, or any responsible state official contemplate enforcing such legislation," he wrote.
Indeed, under the federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employers have many options for hiring workers in the event of a strike, but the Illinois law made many of the practices illegal and forced companies to spend a lot of time and money replacing workers.
"The offensive measure is obviously going to be somewhat weakened when employees are going to be able to collect not only unemployment but presumably some form of strike benefits in the event of a lockout," says Fred Schwartz, a partner at Littler Mendelson.
Schwartz says that, unlike the Strikebreakers Act, this law may remain on the books. Because unemployment benefits are a state fund, federal law isn't pre-emptive in this case.