Update: The two sides didn’t come to an agreement on Tuesday night, according to Unite Here Local 1. The union, in a statement, says “a strike could begin at any moment.” The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament starts Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Politico reports that the Democratic National Committee is eyeing on how the strike resolves as they pick the destination city for the 2024 DNC National Convention. Full story follows.
Food service workers at the United Center — including bartenders, servers, and dishwashers— made good on their threats to go on strike. Fans did not see their favorite bartenders on Sunday, March 5 as the Chicago Bulls lost to the Indiana Pacers. Instead, the stadium closed some stands and brought in managers to work during the game.
United Center on Sunday offered no service at Queenie’s, the Stadium Club, and the Ketel One Club. The UC is served by Levy Restaurants which also provides concessions at Guaranteed Rate Field and Wrigley Field. Levy also owns a stake in Boka Restaurant Group (which owns favorites like Girl & the Goat and Momotaro).
Unite Here Local 1 and Levy are set for a bargaining session on Tuesday. The union is leveraging the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, which starts on Wednesday at the arena and goes through the week. The union authorized a strike in January, with 98 percent of United Center members (about 686) voting in favor of a work stoppage after more than 17 bargaining sessions since 2021.
Union workers say they want a contract with benefits comparable to the homes of the White Sox and Cubs. One worker tells the Tribune that they want to have the same access to health benefits and pensions that workers at the Chicago stadiums have. Levy responded that it will allow United Center employees who work at all three venues to “bundle hours” so they could qualify for those benefits.
In late 2022, United Center workers filed 24 labor complaints against Levy Restaurants, alleging that the company over-scheduled employees in violation of Illinois’ One Day Rest in Seven Act, which requires that workers are allowed one 24-hour period off per week. Employees claim that Levy scheduled workers for as many as 35 days straight. They also are calling for better healthcare options, higher wages, and pensions for longtime workers, some of whom have devoted decades to the arena.
The Big Ten tournament rotates annually and alternates sites. A poor fan experience could push the Big 10 into avoiding Chicago for future events. In 2019, Big Ten fans from Indianapolis complained about a lack of restaurants within walking distance from the United Center. While Randolph Restaurant Row is a 4-minute drive, those fans preferred the chain restaurants that fill entertainment districts in places like Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. it’s the type of convenience the Chicago Bears are seeking in a potential move to suburban Arlington Heights.
Levy has a storied history in Chicago, with its first restaurant, D.B. Kaplan’s Delicatessen, located on the seventh floor of Water Tower Place. The company is now owned by Compass Group, a British multinational. Levy also owns River Roast near the Chicago River and operated the Maddon’s Post, the restaurant from former Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon that closed after he left the team.
For its part, Levy maintains that it has “continuously increased [its] offers to reach a fair deal,” according to a rep, but that talks have stalled because it won’t agree to the union’s Card Check Neutrality Proposal and Hotel Health Fund — proposals that Levy claims are more beneficial to the union as a whole than United Center employees specifically. The company says that its healthcare plan covers around 85 percent of employees and that it has agreed to a $4 to $5 per hour wage increase, a starting wage of at least $20 per hour, paid leave, and a new pension plan. Management also says they’ve offered federal mediation.
Sunday’s strike date was the Bulls Kids Zone game, a matinee matchup. Afternoon kids games don’t sell as much alcohol as night games against marquee teams. Striking during Friday, March 3’s night game against the Phoenix Suns — with newly acquired superstar Kevin Durant — would have cost management more in sales.
Many stadium operators say they can tell if its been a successful night for management at the end of the event if there are sticky floors. That tells them that vendors had a good night and sales were popping, even if the team on the court or rink wasn’t.