A major national union may picket an unlikely venue this weekend in Chicago: International Mr. Leather.
The hotel workers union UNITE HERE has demanded that the convention abandon a hotel in the midst of a labor dispute, and their pressure on the leathermen has prompted a series of bitter charges and counter-charges.
For 33 years, men from around the world have converged on Chicago to compete for the title of International Mr. Leather, awarded to the contestant who most impresses the judges with his leather attire, his interview skills, and his "pecs and personality." Many contestants are gay, but the event has expanded from a celebration of the gay leather subculture to a larger meeting of kink, BDSM, and fetish enthusiasts. In addition to the competition, this year's convention will include a 12-step meeting, a Shabbat service, and two weddings.
The Hyatt Regency Chicago, site of the recent competitions, has been at the center of a bitter a contract fight with workers represented by the union UNITE HERE since 2009. The workers, union spokeswoman Annemarie Strassel said, want one room per day subtracted from their quota to compensate for the fact that they have to get down on their hands and knees to clean floors, rather than using a long-handled mop. They also want better job security. UNITE HERE brands Hyatt "the worst employer in the hotel industry," and it asks that supporters "not eat, meet or sleep at Hyatt."
UNITE HERE has been asking International Mr. Leather to relocate its convention since at least 2010 — and last year, one LGBT website accused the organization of "crossing picket lines" by continuing to hold events at the Hyatt.
The convention leaders, however, dismiss the union's charges — and accuse the union of playing on popular discomfort with their subculture. Jon Krongaard, coordinator of International Mr. Leather, says "there is no picket line," and all he and his organization have seen are "random walkouts."
"This is not our fight," Krongard said. He added that his organization is locked into its contract with Hyatt, and they can't afford the $700,000 he says they'd pay for breaking it.
Krongaard also accuses UNITE HERE of using questionable tactics to advance its agenda. He said that in years past, convention vendors had been "harassed" and "subtly threatened" by union supporters and that several had been contacted at their homes or places of business by name and leather title, effectively outing them to coworkers and neighbors as participants in the leather subculture. Specifically, Krongaard says 2010 International Mr. Leather winner Tyler McCormick was called at work and identified by name and leather title to the company switchboard. He also says the stress of dealing with protests contributed to the death of former IML coordinator RJ Chaffin in 2011, of heart failure.
McCormick has not responded to a request for comment, but Strassel told me that what Krongaard described was certainly possible. She couldn't speak to specific incidents, but said that "we have a boycott and it's important that we make people aware of it," and that one way the union gets a hold of people is by contacting them at work.
Despite its conflict with International Mr. Leather, Strassel says UNITE HERE is working to "build bridges" with the LGBT community. The union started a campaign called Sleep With The Right People as a way to reach out to LGBT Americans and convince them to stay in hotels with fair labor practices. Strassel adds that a "huge segment" of hospitality workers themselves are LGBT.
For their part, Krongaard says IML has put pressure on Hyatt during meetings to treat workers fairly. He also says "our attendees go out of their way to be gracious, thankful, and generous with every person" who works at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
Update: In a statement, Hyatt says, "The health and wellbeing of our associates is one of our top priorities" and "our housekeeping staff can use a wide variety of equipment to make their jobs easier, including wedges and mops with various handle lengths."