Saturday, October 23, 2004

What's at stake?

At the time of this writing, several sections of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) are calling for a boycott of the San Francisco Hilton. The boycott is being called because the AAA, which represents thousands of professional and student anthropologists, has scheduled its annual meeting to take place at the Hilton, one of the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group (MEG) hotels locking out UNITE HERE workers.

For the past two weeks, the electronic discussion groups of the AAA and its section groups have been discussing the labor dispute between UNITE HERE Local 2 and the MEG. Local 2 represents 85% of the employees at more than 60 San Francisco hotels and motels. Its members began a two-week strike against four MEG hotels on September 29th. MEG then locked workers out of 10 of its other hotels. Although UNITE HERE and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom attempted to negotiate a 90-day ?cooling off? period during which the union and MEG would resume labor talks, MEG has continued to lock 4,000 workers out. These workers are the cooks, room cleaners, bartenders, bellmen, food and beverage servers, bussers, housemen, PBX operators and dishwashers who are in one of the most vulnerable employment sectors in the country.

The UNITE HERE strike is an historic opportunity for this union to gain real bargaining power. In addition to fighting givebacks in healthcare and increased workloads due to layoffs after September 11, 2001, UNITE HERE is working on two issues of utmost importance to labor (and to the many anthropologists who are themselves union members). First, they have been in the forefront of organizing for the rights of immigrant workers, while maintaining a focus on the civil rights of the African American workers who have made up the union's base. Second, they are negotiating a contract that would end in 2006, which would put them in the same bargaining cycle as other UNITE
HERE locals. This would make it far more difficult for the major hotel chains to broker deals with individual locals one at a time.

Given the losses suffered by workers in recent years, the increased importance of defending collective bargaining and immigrants? rights, and the potential gains offered by this strike, those who support labor must support this effort.

There are genuine concerns for the AAA however. The AAA Executive Committee has been negotiating to hold its only annual professional meeting in a way that meets its members needs. It remains unclear which party to the AAA/Hilton contract is liable if the hotel cannot guarantee quality service because they have locked out their unionized employees. At stake, according to a researcher at UNITE HERE, is about $5 million of revenue for the City of San Francisco and the San Francisco Hilton.

Yet, the AAA Code of Ethics, its Statement on Human Rights, 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.

UNITE HERE has made clear that the best way to support their struggle is to cancel contracts and reservations with the MEG hotels. Moving or canceling the conference may be costly. It will certainly be inconvenient. However, it is neither so costly nor so inconvenient as a loss would be for UNITE HERE.

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