SCA Open Forum on AAA and Labor Relations

SCA Open Forum on AAA and Labor Relations, Friday, December 17th, 5-7:30pm, Hyatt Regency Hotel--Courtland Room

"Picket line outside the San Francisco Hilton October 11, 2004. Photo by Hocine." March 23, 2013.

The forum included presentations by Neal Kwatra, a Chief Strategist for UNITE HERE!; Paul Durrenberger, Pennsylvania State University; independent scholar, author and activist Suzan Erem; Sandy Smith-Nonini, Elon University and the Society for the Anthropology of Work; and Elizabeth Brumfiel, President of the American Anthropological Association.  The moderators were SCA officers Pauline Strong and Robert Foster.  Approximately 75 AAA members, leaders, and staff attended.

Neal Kwatra opened by thanking AAA on behalf of UNITE HERE! for moving the meetings out of San Francisco, noting that this was one of many factors leading to the end of the lockout.  He provided background on UNITE HERE!, which represents 440,000 workers throughout North America. These include 120,000 hotel workers, primarily employed in full service, first class hotels in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Boston.  This market is dominated by four chains: Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood (formerly Sheraton).  Kwatra provided background on the development of a national union strategy and pointed out the importance of support from professional associations such as AAA.  There is a significant opportunity forleverage because meetings and conventions provide a third of the cash flow in the hotel business, making them the biggest and most reliable customer segment. He emphasized the union’s ongoing efforts toorganize religious, political, and progressive academic groups insupport of the union, particularly between now and 2006, when UNITE HERE! seeks to synchronize its hotel contracts nationally.

Paul Durrenberger discussed structural aspects of union organizing. He described the history of unions in relation to forms of industry,explaining that units and struggles are no longer primarily organizedaround locales but rather around structures of ownership andmanagement, which are now national and transnational. He alsodescribed cascades of contracting and subcontracting arrangements, and explained what AAA could do in relation to a hotel chain like the Hilton, an international corporation that owns some hotels, contracts with others, and franchises others.  He noted that there will likely be another fight connected with the 2006 meeting in San Francisco, and concluded with a statement of support for graduate student labor organizers.

Suzan Erem talked about the difficulty of fighting no-name contractors hired by major, big-name companies to break unions or reduce the quality of jobs, and described her own experience with corporate campaigns, such as the one UNITE HERE! is waging in the hotel industry. She then described the ethnographic work with unions that she and Paul Durrenberger are doing, in which they have learned that union staff believe workers’ willingness and ability to strike is more important than the legal and speaking skills of the negotiator in getting a good contract, while worksite leaders believe the legal and speaking skills of the negotiator are more important. This disconnect between workers and organizers sheds light on the high stakes of the UNITE HERE! campaign in the wake of the strike and lock-out in San Francisco.

Sandy Smith-Nonini offered an ethnographic reflection on theinvolvement of the Society for the Anthropology of Work in the UNITE HERE! strike. She described the Canterbury Convocation meetings in San Francisco, which included a rally at Union Square where striking workers described what a $119/month increase in health premiums means to people making $13-$15 an hour.  She discussed challenges of organizing successfully in a neoliberal economy, and how they have been met by successful labor campaigns using tactics to keep actions in the public eye, e.g. by publicly challenging ethics, targeting corporate brands, organizing alliances with community groups, and addressing political issues like immigration.

Elizabeth Brumfiel presented “the consumer’s point of view.” She noted that the AAA knows it has economic power and tries to use it in socially responsible ways by following longstanding formal guidelines for investing endowment, accepting gifts, and selecting meeting venues. With respect to the latter, Brumfiel mentioned the existing restrictions as well as the new policy of restricting AAA meetings to unionized hotels passed by the Executive Board, and noted that there will be an escape clause for union action in all future contracts (stronger than a force majeure clause, which AAA contracts already contain). The  current labor dispute presents special challenges since AAA is already locked into its meeting contracts through 2009. The loss due to the present move is estimated at $350-$500,000, which means a significant reduction in income from the endowment; this limits the AAA’s capacity to take part in other humanistic initiatives. In addition, the annual meetings are central to the professional, intellectual and financial health of the AAA; a regular schedule is important to elicit sustained effort and participation; publishers depend on it for book promotion; and students depend on it for job interviews and program participation. Brumfiel said that AAA can afford to take a $500,000 hit on the endowment for this one year and its intellectual life will go on, but it cannot do so over andover.  She solicited suggestions for what the AAA can do about thefive years coming up. She noted the recommendation of the Section Assembly to the Executive Board for a Commission on Labor, and that a referendum on the unionized labor decision will be submitted to the membership.  The referendum will offer the option of making this either a strong preference or an absolute requirement. She also noted that the Executive Board would like certification from the union that AAA has done its part.

A lively discussion followed the presentations.  In response toBrumfiel, Kwatra noted that the union views AAA as a progressiveactor.  He emphasized the need to be proactive in order to avoid being damaged by continued labor disputes, offering the assistance of UNITE HERE!.  He urged the AAA to seek to renegotiate its existing contracts, which he characterized as “living documents.”  The forum ended with closing remarks from the panelists and moderators. 

--Bonnie Urciuoli, SCA Secretary