At Hotel Chicago; A May Day Like No Other

When Kumbalangad Unnikrishnan, the General Secretary of Madrasi Kerala Samajam and Director Board Member of Kerala Pravasi Welfare Trust asked me if I was interested in taking part in the May Day celebrations held at 'Hotel Chicago', I was amazed. I was hearing this name for the first time. “'Hotel Chicago?'”, I wondered. (It was in Chicago, USA where the general strike for the 'Eight hour work day' was held. )

“There is a hotel by that name here. It is not the Chicago in America, this is Chennai's own Chicago. The 'Chicago Hotel' in Kamraj Avenue, Adayar run by T.T. Sukumaran hailing from Patyam, Kannur." When Unnikrishnan asked me if I had ever heard of a hotel which gives bonus to the workers on every May day, my eagerness to know more about the hotelier deepened, so did my interest to take part in their celebrations.

My friend Pratheesh and I went to Pallippetta where the celebrations were being held. And the visit made my May Day into an experience like no other. My first sight fell on the flags and banners, under which were assembled the employees with their friends and family. That was when Unnikrishnan introduced us to Sukumaran, rather Com. Sukumaran as he is popularly known. He looked very much like a commoner - wearing a white shirt and dhoti and hoary headed. He warmly invited us to the hall. Arrangements for a small meeting were being made there. Sitting down near the stage we started chatting with him.

Drawing inspiration from May Day, he named his first hotel in memory of 'Chicago', the historic spot where it all began. That's not all. There are many more interesting facts about this small hotel.

  • May 1 is a holiday with wages for all employees.
  • For the past 25 years, without fail, a month's wages is distributed to all the employees as a bonus.
  • Employees who have worked for 300 days or more in a year, get a gold ring as a present.
  • All employees are given Rs.1500 every year for clothing.
  • Every year, a raise in pay on Diwali and May day.

The hotel which gives all these allowances is not a three star or five star hotel. When we note that 'Hotel Chicago' is a small venture, the distinctiveness becomes all the more attractive. 'Hotel Chicago' has been true to its name. May day celebrations have been held for 25 years. The hotel and its surroundings are decorated with flags and banners. Those coming to the hotel are given tea and breakfast in the morning free of cost. Then, the employees, family members, friends and guests are invited to celebrate May Day together. A sumptuous lunch follows.

“How did you come into this field?”. Hearing my question he reminisced.

“I came to Chennai in 1971. Even before coming here I was closely associated with the activities of the Leftist students party (the erstwhile Kerala Students Federation). As a consequence of my active participation, I was involved in a whole lot of police cases and my studies did not go too well. When I failed to clear the SSLC, I left for Chennai where my uncle and brother lived. On reaching Chennai, I took up various jobs, mostly in tea shops. The wage at that time was a meagre one or two rupees. Seeing the miserable plight of those who worked in tea shops, the Leftist in me arose. Thus, a ' Tea Shop Employees Union' was formed in 1979. There were around 2000 members in this Union. At the same time, I began to work with various Left outfits in Chennai and became active in CPI(M). The Tea Shop Employees Union was linked to the CITU. Associated with these Union activities too, many police cases existed.”

“The judgement in one of these cases resulted in one of the hotel owners having to pay Rs.60,000. He gave the money in several installments. The money received was used to establish the first tea shop in Kamraj Avenue in 1986. I did not have to think twice about the name of the restaurant. In memory of May Day which used to arouse a feeling of solidarity for the Leftist cause, right from my childhood days, “Hotel Chicago” was started. In the beginning I did all the work on my own. But slowly, it began to expand. Today, there are three hotels, one of them managed by a relative. Twenty-two (22) employees work in this small hotel”

“When I run a hotel, it is impossible for me to take oppressive measures against the employees. So, the employees are seen as a part of the hotel and great priority is given to their welfare. I see to it that they receive their benefits - Insurance, Welfare Fund etc.”, Com. Sukumaran concluded.

The meeting was about to begin. Bhima Rao, the CPI(M) District Secretary, Kumbalangad Unnikrishnan, the General Secretary of Madrasi Kerala Samajam, Vice President K.V.V. Mohanan, DYFI leaders and some comrades from Kannur were on the stage. Apart from them, people from various walks of life addressed the crowd. The meeting commemorated the people who held strikes in the streets of Chicago demanding eight hours of work, eight hours of entertainment and eight hours of rest. The speakers emphasized on anti-proletariat policies and the crisis of capitalism in the era of globalisation.

Hotel Chicago

Marking the 25th anniversary of 'Hotel Chicago', each employee was given a Titan watch as this year's special bonus. Along with this, the regular bonus and gold ring was also distributed by Com. Sukumaran. A festive mood prevailed and every employee's face was a polaroid of joy. I spoke with some of them.

“I work hard as if it is my own hotel.” This is what Periaswamy who had been working in this establishment for 11 years had to say. There has not been any complaints regarding the working conditions or any other issue. "Meetings are held with the employees every month. In these meetings all issues are discussed and decisions are taken. The opinions of the customers are also taken into consideration", Periaswamy said.

Bablu, hailing from Bihar, who has been working here for the past three years looks like a small child though he is the bread-winner of his family. He looked radiant in an embroidered shirt and pants. These clothes too were given by Com. Sukumaran, Bablu said. He is happy that he is able to send a considerable amount of money home every month. He is very content with the way Com. Sukumaran interacts with him. 'Hotel Chicago' excels on the social service front too. Under Com. Sukumaran's leadership, the employees held a blood donation camp last year. With the help of the blood bank, the blood group of nearly forty-five people including the employees were ascertained and a list was created. The enlisted are willing to donate blood voluntarily to the needy at any time. In a metro city like Chennai, there are a lot of small hotels and tea shops. People work in miserable conditions in most of these places. They receive meagre wages in return for toilsome labour. This is what makes Com. Sukumaran distinct. He has not forgotten the hard paths he had trodden. For the past 25 years, Hotel Chicago and Sukumaran have been proving those who have been preaching that giving employees incentives and allowances is the reason why many establishments shut down, wrong. We are living in a society where even large companies exploit labour to the maximum and cut down on employment and allowances. To know how employees think of an establishment as their own and love and nurture it, one has to visit Hotel Chicago.

There is no owner or employee here. All are employees as well as managers. It is for this very reason that for every employee Sukumaran becomes their Comrade, not their proprietor. Com. Sukumaran has shown us a flame that glows brightly. This is the light that every communist has to show the world. Com. Sukumaran, who is also the CPI(M) area committee member, waits to see this flame burning brightly in the society as a whole. Each person can contribute to it in their own way as he has.

After having filled myself with a delicious Biriyani, I felt full, full of that goodness that awed me. This was indeed a May Day that I will always cherish. (Thanks: Pratheesh, for being with me all the while and for helping me take the pictures and Kumbalangad Unnikrishnan, for inviting me)

Original Author / Image Credit: Sunil Krishnan

Translated by: Darsana Vijay