As the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks struggle through subpar seasons, arguably the biggest draw to the United Center has been the arena experience which includes the stadium’s food.
Now, the food service is even in jeopardy after union workers at the United Center authorized a strike, though a work stoppage hasn’t been scheduled as negotiations continue. There have been 17 bargaining sessions since 2021, with another two scheduled for Wednesday, February 8 and Thursday, February 16. The Bulls play five home games, including one Thursday night versus Charlotte. The Hawks play two through until the second session. There is also an Adam Sandler show on Sunday, February 5.
There are about 700 members of Unite Here Local 1, a union that represents United Center food servers, bartenders, suite attendants, cooks, and dishwashers. Union officials say 98 percent of their United Center members, or about 686, voted in favor of the strike. In December, union workers filed 24 labor violations against Levy. They’re asking for better health care options (not everyone is eligible for insurance), better wages, and pensions for longtime workers as inflation has outpaced wage raises. Some have worked at the UC for decades.
“You’re not showing me that you really do care and value what I do here,” Tawanda Murray, who works at the UC’s grab-and-go 1800 Market, tells NBC Chicago.
Workers are bargaining with Levy, the hospitality behemoth that provides food services for many venues across the country including at Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, and Ravinia in suburban Highland Park. Levy is also a player in the restaurant world, having a stake in Boka Restaurant Group and operating restaurants like River Roast and Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap. Comparatively, working for a large company like Levy, part of the Compass Group, has been more attractive to the average hospitality worker in recent years as that scale allows them to better afford health care and other benefits versus smaller restaurants.
However, stadium workers represent a different matter versus restaurants. The union mentions the case of one worker who isn’t offered health insurance even though he works at the United Center year-round. Union workers at the United Center say they’ve been working without a contract since 2020. Levy disagrees with that assessment and says management and the union agreed to extend the contract.
Levy calls their offer “fair and generous” and says it extends health insurance to more workers with a starting hourly wage of $20 for non-tipped workers, according to a statement. Some jobs would also include a tip guarantee of $6.50 per hour. In the event of a strike, the company claims they’ll hire temporary workers and have supervisors pitch in the event of a work stoppage.
In the last few years, the United Center has partnered with prominent Chicago chefs like Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat), Mindy Segal (Mindy’s HotChocolate), and Charlie McKenna (Lillie’s Q) to bring their brands to the arena. These chefs provide training and recipes to Levy so arena staff and attempt to replicate the food for fans.