Saturday, October 23, 2004

Counter-conference to Boycott MEG Hotels and AAA 2004

Calling all boycotting sections: Let's work with the San Jose Convention Bureau to quickly pull together a smaller "counter-conference" on the same dates as the original AAA conference.

If people already had plane reservations, these would remain valid, and the only thing they might have to cancel would be their hotel reservations.

We could even try to organize it to keep paper sessions in the same time slots as originally scheduled, and instead of expensive keynote speakers, we could have periods to go out and picket with or otherwise support the union -- and invite some union reps to give a keynote speech or two down in San Jose!!

This would be an opportunity to continue to do good public anthropology. We would be able to support UNITE HERE Local 2, participate in a (media blitz over a) boycott of the MEG hotels, and boycott the AAA.

This latter point may be sticky for many of you.

Here are my thoughts: The labor dispute is not the only issue that AAA members need to discuss. The dispute – and the way that it has been discussed by members and addressed by the AAA Executive Committee -- also raise serious questions for AAA members about the ethics and democratic governance of the Association.

First, a particularly sticky point is the question of whose opinions the AAA leadership is considering in making decisions about the dispute. The initial announcement to members went only to those members registered for the conference. Several section board members have emailed to say that the Executive Committee is only considering the votes of registered conference participants in making their decision.

Yet, the issues involved affect all members of the AAA, not just those who are able and willing to go to San Francisco (Just to get my positionality straight, I have a registration and plane ticket for San Francisco). The AAA Code of Ethics, the Statement on Human Rights, the by-laws of many of the sections, and the entire area of "public" anthropology make the case for supporting the rights of workers to organize, supporting cooperation between established workers and immigrant workers, and analyzing and addressing the issues of access to healthcare, employment, etc.

As members of this professional organization, we have duties as well as rights. We should not, on the one hand, take advantage of what the organization has to offer to further our careers and, on the other, ignore the ethical positions the organization has taken over years of deliberation and struggle. As anthropologists we have a duty to address people's real problems.

Second, the situation calls into serious question the leadership of the AAA. The fact is that AAA leadership knew about the labor problems at the Hilton seven weeks ago and did nothing to alert the membership until the 11th hour. The initial response that most members saw came from AAA President Elizabeth Brumfeil, who expressed the hope that the situation would resolve itself before several thousand anthropologists showed up in San Francisco.

AAA members have been discussing the ethics of such a position without questioning the serious lack of judgment exhibited by the Association’s leadership. Independent of the AAA leadership, one member was able to work with the UNITE/HERE leadership and with the visitors bureau in San Jose to come up with a feasible alternative plan in just two days. This plan could have been set into motion weeks ago had the AAA executive committee or program committee shown similar commitment and resolve. Sections should discuss motions to call for the resignation of the executive board.

Lastly, the labor dispute points to the myopia that often affects anthropologists and activists both. We become so bogged down in our own work and struggles, we do not see our fellow workers and activists as they toil next to us. As one anthropologist posting to urbananth-l put it, too many of us were saying “‘Finally, I can express my convictions!’…But we needn't wait for a union to strike in S[an] F[rancisco] in order to find under-paid and poorly treated workers; they're all over the place.” In fact, UNITE HERE locals here in Philadelphia are negotiating with the same hotel chains, and workers are striking in Atlantic City.

This dispute presents many teachable moments. AAA members need to use this moment to discuss both the responsibilities and the benefits of their membership (and of “public” anthropology). In Philadelphia, several of us will be sending a delegation to Atlantic City to support those workers. We’ll be discussing this struggle in our classrooms, using it as an excellent opportunity for our students to gain an understanding of what’s at stake for us all in protecting workers' rights. If a counter-conference happens in an alternative location, presenters should consider giving papers on issues related to the hotel workers struggle.

In struggle,

Rob

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