Chronicle of Higher Education, Tuesday, October 26, 2004
Labor Strife at San Francisco Hotels Prompts Anthropologists to
Tentatively Move Annual Meeting
By DAVID GLENN
LEADERS OF THE AMERICAN Anthropological Association have tentatively
decided to relocate and reschedule the organization's annual meeting,
which had been expected to draw nearly 6,000 scholars to San Francisco
The 11th-hour move, made late last week, was sparked by a bitter labor
dispute at San Francisco's major hotels, including the San Francisco
Hilton, where the conference was to have been held. In response to an
internal poll of the group, hundreds of anthropologists indicated that
they were unwilling to cross picket lines to attend the conference, and
some threatened to resign from the association if the meeting went
forward as scheduled. The conference will instead be held in Atlanta
from December 15 to 19.
The relocation has not quite been set in stone. On Sunday, Mayor Gavin
Newsom of San Francisco called for a 90-day cooling-off period in the
labor conflict. He has given the disputing parties until late Tuesday to
accept or reject his proposal. On Monday afternoon, the anthropology
association sent an e-mail message urging its members not to book
tickets to Atlanta just yet.
The tentative decision to relocate came at the end of a painful week of
marathon conference calls. "We wanted to abide by our members' deep
moral feelings about this," said Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, the
association's president, in an interview on Monday. "What emerged from
the poll we sent out was that a large group of our membership were
strongly opposed to crossing picket lines -- had never crossed picket
lines and weren't about to cross picket lines."
The Middle East Studies Association, which is also scheduled to meet in
San Francisco in November, is now embroiled in debates about whether to
make a similar move.
Unionized hotel employees in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington,
D.C., are working without contracts, and they have authorized strikes in
all three cities. The hotel workers' union, known as Unite Here after a
recent merger, conducted a two-week strike at four San Francisco hotels
in late September and early October. The city's hotel association
replied by locking out workers at those hotels and 10 others, replacing
them with temporary nonunion workers.
The decision to relocate has not been universally popular among
anthropologists. In various online bulletin boards, many scholars have
expressed anger about the disruption of job interviews that had been
scheduled for the San Francisco conference. Others have complained that
they are stuck with nonrefundable airplane tickets or hotel deposits.
And some anthropologists have suggested that the association's new
Atlanta contract, which was the product of an elaborate negotiation with
the Hilton Hotels Corporation, represents a betrayal of the interests of
the locked-out hotel workers in San Francisco.
When the threat of a strike or lockout emerged, in September, the
association considered canceling the meeting entirely or moving it 40
miles south, to a patchwork of small hotels in San Jose. The
association's leaders feared, however, that such moves would leave it
vulnerable to at least $1.2-million in liability claims from the San
Francisco Hilton, according to Ms. Brumfiel, who is also a professor of
anthropology at Northwestern University.
The solution that arose last week, Ms. Brumfiel said, was a "contract
swap." The anthropology association had already arranged to meet at a
Hilton hotel in Atlanta in 2006. The Hilton Hotels Corporation offered
on Thursday to absolve the association of any financial liability if it
would agree to meet in Atlanta this year but return to San Francisco in
In some skeptics' eyes, that solution still would put too much money in
Hilton's pockets at a time when the company is locking out workers. Late
Monday, more than 500 scholars had signed an online petition
(http://www.petitiononline.com/2004AAA/petition.html) that declares that
the association's Atlanta arrangement "attempts to circumvent the
underlying ethical issues" and "effectively violates the spirit and
intent of the strike in San Francisco." The petition was drafted by
Vanessa deKoninck, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University
of California at Davis.
Ms. Brumfiel said she agrees that the association's solution was far
from perfect. She said that critics should bear in mind, however, that
if the association had tried to break its contract with Hilton, it
probably would have eventually had to pay the corporation hundreds of
thousands of dollars in a legal settlement.
"It seemed that the triple A would end up paying the Hilton
$1.2-million," she said. "That just seemed kind of illogical to me. ...
I didn't like the idea of transferring these funds."
A staff member at the union said in an interview on Monday that he had
mixed feelings about the association's new arrangement.
"First and foremost, we're pleased that they made a decision not to
cross the lockout line," said Neal Kwatra, a coordinator in Unite Here's
strategic-affairs department. "We applaud the association's members and
activists for bringing this to the leadership's attention and ensuring
that they didn't hold a convention in San Francisco."
However, Mr. Kwatra continued: "We are disappointed that they're
rewarding Hilton for its atrocious behavior in the context of the labor
dispute in San Francisco by transferring the convention to a Hilton
facility. ... We would have liked to have seen another outcome."
Kamala Visweswaran, an associate professor of anthropology at the
University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview on Monday that the
association should have recognized that it actually had a great deal of
leverage in its negotiations with Hilton, and probably could have
escaped its San Francisco contract with a penalty far smaller than
$1.2-million, perhaps on the order of $100,000. Even in the worst
scenario, she said, the association probably would have faced a
sympathetic jury in San Francisco, a pro-labor town.
Not everyone agrees. In an e-mail message that was circulated to
association activists on Monday afternoon, Daniel A. Segal, a professor
of anthropology and history at Pitzer College, disputed such arguments.
The association's contract with Hilton specified arbitration, not a jury
trial, Mr. Segal wrote. He also emphasized that the association's 2006
contract with Hilton had been signed years ago, so the Atlanta
conference should not be perceived as "new decisions to give Hilton our
Many activists hope that the association will negotiate different terms
in its future meeting contracts, so that it will no longer be vulnerable
to situations like this. Robert T. O'Brien, a Ph.D. candidate in
anthropology at Temple University who maintains a Weblog
(http://aaaunite.blogspot.com/) about the meeting dispute, said in an
interview on Monday that he would bring several resolutions to the
Atlanta meeting. They would require the association to purchase
insurance and negotiate opt-out clauses that would give it more leverage
during similar disputes in the future.
Mr. O'Brien said that he was personally disappointed with the Atlanta
arrangement, but he urged his fellow activists to have sympathy for
members of the association's executive board. "They operated under a
timeline, thinking about real issues, like whether we're going to be
liable for $1.5-million," he said. "It's a question of picking one's
battles. If we bankrupt the organization, then we won't be around to
push the Hilton or the U.N. Commission on Human Rights or anyone else in
Meanwhile, the Middle East Studies Association's leaders have strongly
suggested that their San Francisco conference will go ahead as
scheduled. Afra Al-Mussawir, a graduate student at Texas, said in an
interview on Monday that she sympathized with that decision. "A lot of
attendees come from outside the country," she said, "and they go through
a lot to get their visas. It's not easy to change your plans."
Ms. Al-Mussawir said, however, that she herself would not attend the
meeting if the lockout continues. "I've never in my life crossed a
picket line," she said, "and this is despite the fact that I've had not
such great personal experiences with the unions that I've been a member
of. But still, I think it would make me sick to my stomach to cross a