A Fight Is Brewing In Chicago Between A Multinational Concessions Business And Its Workers
3:19 PM EST on March 1, 2023
If you’ve bought a hot dog and a beer at a major sporting event in North America lately, there’s a good chance you were perplexed at what it cost. Maybe you did actual math in the bleachers, running a sort of cost-benefit analysis to help you decide whether you ever want to do that again, or just calculating the going rate per ounce of utility-grade meat. It’s not the only reason why these things cost so much, but it’s worth factoring into your computation that a good amount of what you spent went to England. That’s because Levy Restaurants, a food services company that staffs over 200 stadiums and parts of Disney World, was bought by the British multinational Compass Group in 2006. The entity netted $1.4 billion in profit in 2022.
Their workers can tell you all about this. In Chicago, where Levy got its start as a single mom-and-pop diner back in 1976, those who make food happen at the United Center authorized a potential work stoppage on January 31, with 98 percent voting in favor. The unit is represented by Unite Here Local 1, which also organizes hotel and airport workers, and are seeking better pay, a pension, real healthcare benefits, and a more sensible pathway to them. Levy’s current policy allows those who work 200 hours per month—or 50 hours every week—limited access to a medical clinic. Those who work at multiple venues, like Wrigley Field or Guaranteed Rate Field, which Levy also staffs, are not allowed to combine the hours spent at those separate workplaces to reach the benefits threshold.
The wages don’t make up for this. A 23-year veteran of the United Center and Local 1 representative named Alma (who asked to be identified by first name only) makes just $17.11 per hour. She speaks of the pre-Levy days, before the company moved in to take over for Bismarck Enterprises in 2009, with much more warmth.
“They used to give us a Christmas party. With nice food, with nice gifts,” Alma said. “When Levy took us over, they only gave us a dinner before the game. And every year, it’s worse. It’s worse quality food, and they count how many cookies you take, how many pieces of chicken you take. They’re watching us to make sure we don’t take a lot. Bismarck wasn’t like that. We used to feel like a family. But Levy, Levy is terrible.”
Alma also tells a story of the time she got into a car accident and couldn’t get any time off to recover. “They’re very greedy people,” she said. But it was something else that, for her, was the final straw—the accumulation of extra tasks without extra pay, including one too unsavory to bear. “They even told us we have to check mouse traps. They have a little mouse problem [at the United Center].” Instead of hiring an exterminator, Levy has simply asked employees to take care of a “really bad” rodent problem for about six months. “People don’t feel right, because sometimes the health department comes and [Levy] tries to make us clean the droppings, so we can skip a step.”
Alma’s co-worker, Tawanda Murray, has been a United Center fixture for 28 years, which is essentially the stadium’s entire existence. Like Alma, she’s a Local 1 rep, and also like Alma, she loves her job, and has beloved regular customers. She spoke of the role that she and her co-workers play with great pride. “We have built relationships. I have people who come and see me. When you come to the United Center, you will have a memorable experience. Amazing food. We have Ketel One Club, Stadium Club—amazing food,” she told me, not a little bit rhapsodically. “We have anything from your hot dog, to prime rib, to your steak sandwich. Whatever you’re looking for. Desserts, cheesecakes—oh my Jesus! Freshly made! Taffy apples! The range is ... just beyond! Tacos!”
The work has become strained, though. “Every day, there’s a new rule. A new piece of paper you’ve got to fill out.” This administration runs downhill, as such things tend to do, onto an already stretched workforce. “You have to nourish the roots,” Murray said of Levy’s negligence. “You can’t just always feed the branches. You’ve got to get the roots to keep things blossoming, and budding, and blooming. These are your roots; this is where you have to water.” Instead, Levy has brought in temporary workers who they pay more—$25 per hour—and who loom in case of a strike. “There’s not enough of them,” Murray said, “and they’re just trying to get a quick dollar. They’re not experienced, so the quality will suffer.” To bolster her point about the importance of experience, Murray provides the example of Loretta Micele, a locally famous beer vendor for Bulls, White Sox, and Blackhawks games who started working for the Sox in 1945 and kept doing it for 60 years—“a jazzy, beautiful spirit,” per Murray. Fans agree: After Micele’s retirement, the White Sox named a section of their concourse after her, “Loretta’s Lounge," only to spark major disdain when they briefly changed its title to “LaRussa’s Lounge” in 2021.
To many old-timers in Chicago, the Levy brand is memorable because of another darling old woman: owner Larry Levy’s mother, Edith “Eadie” Levy. Much like Micele, she was a cherished maternal presence, and the key to Levy’s success at his first establishment, D.B. Kaplan’s Delicatessen in Water Tower Place, where patrons came to enjoy both her charisma and her famous carrot cake. The mogul’s mother would go on to travel with him as a deal-making charmer when he secured contracts at new stadiums throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, and was often the face of the company as it grew from its modest roots into its present multinational brawn. “She was like our Colonel Sanders,” Levy has said of her. "Her morals and values became the culture of the company, which became an international company. Great companies have a great culture, and the culture began to revolve around my mother. People could see [my brother] Mark and I came from a nice person. People were treated with absolute dignity." In the same article, Levy told a story about his mother’s kindness. "There was a woman who struggled to keep a job, and my mom paid for her dental reconstruction, because she thought that might be the problem,” he said.
Knowing that Levy’s mother’s generosity amounted to a better healthcare plan than what the company now offers its employees arguably says more about the company’s culture than any fabled patron saint ever could. And again, the company can afford more kindness; their profits are exorbitant. Already highly marked-up food and drink prices grow an extra 30 percent for musical concerts—the United Center has recently hosted SZA and Muse, and will soon see John Mayer, Lizzo, Depeche Mode, and Blink-182 come through, adding more profits to a pot that workers don’t currently share in.
It’s all been gravy, really, since 1983. That’s when Levy was invited to cater White Sox games for the first time, and discovered an insanely lucrative business model. “Levy officials would cook the food overnight at their Water Tower Place restaurants and truck it over the next day before the game,” a business-journal hagiography of the company reads. “Little did they know the rudimentary procedure would be a hit. ‘We heated it up and the people went crazy, they thought it was fantastic,’ said Levy… ‘We said, wait a minute, if we served that food at Water Tower Place, people would send it back. People really have low expectations and it’s easy to exceed them.’”
That low-effort catering experience and those ultra-low expectations also helped White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had bought the team just two years prior, sell fans—and then, corporations—on ponying up for the 17 new luxury suites he’d built into the old Comiskey Park. The whole business of live sports was already on a slippery slope; live professional sports in America were beginning to accelerate their transition from a populist, peanut-intensive experience into the more expensive, more extensively gated, class-signaling enterprise of today.
On the front line of this transformation, and that vast and highly profitable system, are wage-working humans whose workplace experience is being optimized into misery. Their job descriptions expand but their pay remains stagnant, their benefits effectively don’t exist, and they’re handling pests and dangerous materials—Alma describes a new hot dog machine that, if used incorrectly by under-trained temp workers, could easily start a fire. Local 1 has been looking for a fresh labor deal with Levy for about two years, but they couldn’t get their employer to the negotiating table until they voted overwhelmingly to strike if they had to.
Now, Levy is beginning to reach out to them proactively. It’s a busy time at the arena, with the Bulls’ and Blackhawks’ seasons reaching their feverish endings, and the Big Ten Tournament due in early March. With this whirlwind of upcoming events, the union knows it has its employer in a tough spot, so they’re making progress in negotiations, but they still don’t seem close to signing anything they’ve been shown just yet. A strike is still on the table if further significant concessions aren’t in the cards, and at this point of the year, that action would be a disaster for the company. Because the element of surprise is important to the effectiveness of any strike, nobody from Local 1 would tell me when a stoppage might be coming, but the organization’s veteran ambassadors, who have been on the job for decades, believe that they have never come this close to such a drastic action.
Workers like Alma, Murray, and everyone they represent don’t really want to stop working. Everyone I met from Local 1 wore pins with the words “I don’t want to strike, but I will” printed on them. And their hesitance is certainly not just because of the money they’d lose in the short term. The workers I spoke to told me that they adore being stewards for the large-scale communal experiences that would be impossible without them. At a time when live professional sports are both more costly and more financially fruitful than ever before, the workers who handle the fans and their sustenance directly deserve a more dignified share of the historic wealth being produced. Instead their employer is sending a lot of what they’ve earned across the Atlantic Ocean or back into their own pockets. They seem determined to dare the workers to fight for even just a little bit extra. It's appropriate, in a sense, that all this is happening in Chicago, the city in which both Levy’s schmaltzy corporate history and so much of the inequitable blueprint that the company has since rolled out across the country was written. Should Local 1 succeed, maybe a different story can start there.