Monday, October 25, 2004

UNITE HERE and Anthropologists Claim Victory, Vow to Continue Fight

UNITE HERE and Anthropologists Claim Victory, Vow to Continue Fight

Last Friday, the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Executive Board made the decision to move its annual meeting from the San Francisco Hilton, one of the 14 San Francisco Multi-Employer Group (MEG) hotels that have locked out UNITE HERE workers. The AAA acted on behalf of several thousand members pre-registered for the meeting, a majority of whom indicated in an email poll that they would prefer to move or cancel the meeting, rather than cross picket lines.

The AAA move represents a victory for the locked-out workers. In the past, more than 5000 professional and student anthropologists have attended annual meetings held in San Francisco. The financial loss to the city in conference business is estimated at over $5 million. This will likely give UNITE HERE greater leverage in convincing San Francisco politicians to intervene in the labor standoff that has paralyzed tourism and created economic hardships for 4000 low-wage, predominantly immigrant hotel workers. Additionally, Hilton Corporation faces a significant loss of revenue, as the relocated conference is likely to be substantially smaller than it would have been in San Francisco.

The lockout occurred after a two-week strike of UNITE HERE Local 2 that began September 29. Local 2 represents 85% of the employees at more than 60 San Francisco hotels and motels. Negotiations have deadlocked over health care benefits, pensions, fair wage increases, and the length of the contract. To date, efforts of the union and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to negotiate a 90-day “cooling off” period (allowing the workers to return to their jobs while labor talks resumed), have been unsuccessful. The local, which represents cooks, room cleaners, bartenders, bellmen, food and beverage servers, housemen, and dishwashers, is advocating on behalf of one of the most vulnerable employment sectors in the country. Some workers have said they are at risk of missing rent or mortgage payments if the lockout continues.

For the past two weeks, email boxes and websites of the AAA and its Sections have been filled with hundreds of comments on the labor dispute. Many anthropologists study immigration and work, some even study union struggles, and we have a long tradition of supporting marginalized groups. The recent rise of “public anthropology” represents the increasing trend within the discipline for anthropologists to apply their work to policy issues, and to speak out about people's real problems. The AAA’s Code of Ethics and its Statement on Human Rights further support the rights of workers to organize. Issues of cooperation between established and immigrant workers and access to benefits such as healthcare, pensions and employment security have been paid particularly close attention by recent anthropological work.

Many analysts see this as a crucial time for labor struggles, as workers in the US service industry are increasingly marginalized in an economy characterized by drops in purchasing power for workers, cuts to healthcare benefits, and an increasing gap between rich and poor. The UNITE HERE strike is a historic opportunity for this union to gain real bargaining power on two fronts: First, they are in the forefront of organizing for the rights of immigrants, and for hiring of more black workers, who today represent only 5% of the MEG workforce. Second, they are negotiating a contract that would end in 2006, which would put them in the same bargaining cycle as UNITE HERE locals in other cites, lending the union important leverage when negotiating with powerful transnational hotel corporations.

The decision to move the meeting is a clear victory for UNITE HERE’s local 2. It is also a victory for AAA members, who continue to work with their board to ensure that the Association supports the rights of workers in the future. AAA members will urge their board to move forward with plans to adopt “opt-out” contracts in the event of vendor labor disputes and to consider a freeze on dealings with the Hilton and other MEG hotel chains until the lock-out ends.

UNITE HERE has made clear that the best way to support their struggle is to cancel contracts and reservations with the MEG hotels that are locking out workers. While moving or canceling the conference at first blush may appear costly and inconvenient, the City of San Francisco’s loss is another city’s (and its hotel industry's) gain. This fact is not lost on the city of San Jose, whose Convention & Visitors Bureau went to great lengths to accommodate the projected hotel, meeting space, and travel needs of the AAA conventioneers, in hopes of luring the association’s meeting. And herein may lie a lesson for the hotel industry, other municipalities, and conference planners throughout the country - that in these times of renewed labor organizing, it may pay to support rather than lock-out one's employees.

Robert T. O’Brien, PhD Candidate
Adjunct Instructor, Temple University
AAAUnite Ad Hoc Committee

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