When members of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) gather at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, August 22-27, 2011, to celebrate their 75th anniversary conference they may have to cross UNITE HERE picket lines to do so. The story of how this came about may be instructive to leaders of other professional associations as they plan annual meetings.
At the time they signed the contract making the Hyatt their convention site SAA was unaware of a labor dispute; there was no boycott or strike yet. But at the late January 2011 meeting of their Council, SAA’s elected governing body, they were aware of UNITE HERE Local 1’s boycott, heard representatives of both the hotel and union, and discussed the matter.
February 23 the Council unanimously voted that “SAA proceed with plans to convene the 2011 Annual Meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, August 22-27,” citing cost concerns and the difficulty of finding another suitable site as principal factors in their decision. “Given the significant cost of cancelling the current hotel contract, as well as concerns associated with finding an appropriate alternative venue, it is prudent for the Society to proceed as contracted for the 2011 Annual Meeting.”
In an unusually candid “fiscal impact statement accompanying the motion, the Council noted: It is likely that proceeding as planned will result in diminished attendance at the Annual Meeting, the extent of which is difficult to determine at this time. However, it is unlikely that the impact would approach the financial penalty that SAA would incur were the Society to cancel its contract with the Hyatt,” estimated at a maximum of $409,000-$685,000, a heavy blow to the annual budget. SAA conference planners promised to “continue to work with the hotel staff to mitigate the financial impact of reduced reservation levels and food and beverage orders.”
As soon as news of the Council’s discussions and decision about proceeding with the planned meeting at the Hyatt, despite an UNITE HERE boycott, spread, so did objections from individual SAA members and groups about the Council’s decision. Naturally, the first to react were archivists working in labor archives, saying they could not cross picket lines out of consideration for those they work with on a daily basis and how it might affect donor relations, their outreach, and responsibilities.
Several of SAA’s round tables communicated to the Council concerns about the dispute and how it affects SAA, as a whole and its individual members. In an official response the SAA Labor Archives Roundtable (LAR) wrote, “While we acknowledge the bind that the dispute and the hotel contract put us in, we also recognize the enormous challenge that is now presented to some of our members. Many of us hold the right to organize and to bargain in good faith as basic human rights: all workers should be able to fight for improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions without fear of scare tactics or negative repercussions.”
Narrowing the focus, LAR pointed out that “It would be difficult for many archivists, especially for those who work with labor collections and those who are members of unions, individually and as a community, to cross a picket line. Crossing a picket line would be an unacceptable involvement in the dispute, one that we perceive as a de facto expression of support for the hotel management.”
The Steering Committee of the SAA Issues and Advocacy Roundtable joined their colleagues on the Labor Archives group in expressing deep concerns with the ongoing labor dispute at the Hyatt. If LAR members were required to cross a picket line “they would be trading their heartfelt belief in the basic right of workers to assemble and demonstrate peaceably, for the unparalleled professional opportunities available at the Annual Meeting. Like the LAR we believe that this is a false, unfair, and unacceptable choice.” Many members of the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable and its Steering Committee would also be unwilling to cross the picket line and therefore unable to participate in the SAA conference. They were also concerned that SAA be inappropriately inserted into the dispute.
From Boycott to Strike
By June the labor dispute between the Hyatt and UNITE HERE had moved from boycott to strike and had taken a toll on the SAA conference program. After twenty months of deadlocked negotiations, on June 20, more than 1,000 housekeepers, restaurant workers, bellhops, and other hotel employees, as well as teachers, religious leaders, and community supporters from throughout Illinois rallied at the Hyatt location on Daley Plaza, the largest Hyatt property in the world, in support of hotel workers’ rights.
The demonstrators were there to protest low wages, job outsourcing, and unsafe working conditions and demand good benefits. Hotel housekeeping duties are dangerous because of the chemicals workers must use, with debilitating consequences to their health. According to a 2010 study Hyatt housekeepers had the highest rate of injury for housekeepers among the five hotel companies and across fifty cities surveyed. Hotel management has retaliated by filing unfair labor practices charges against UNITE HERE with the National Labor Relations Board.
Participants in SAA Session 402: Connecting with Your Community: Mining Labor Lore and Worker Culture in the Archives have withdrawn their session from the program. The decision was entirely their own, unprompted by pressure from the union, and made with regret. The participants were looking forward to sharing their work with SAA’s membership, but they said, “we are compelled to stand with the union boycott against the Chicago Hyatt and for us that means not attending the conference or presenting our session.”
While there are almost two months until the 2011 SAA conference, it is extremely unlikely that this labor dispute will be resolved by then. Two Chicago hotels have signed agreements with UNITE HERE this year, but Hyatt is unlikely to do so. The Hyatt/UNITE HERE relationship has been particularly contentious in cities across America. Indeed, the Hyatt has become leader in a national campaign by some hotels to cut workers’ wages, benefits, and safe working conditions.
During the course of this furor within SAA some helpful suggestions have been offered. Those who have been concerned about this year’s meeting have been more than just naysayers.
Several members of SAA have just created a website called “Support Hyatt Workers: an Unofficial Resource” http://saa2011hyatt.info/ which compiles ideas generated during recent discussions of how SAA can support the Hyatt workers before, during, and after the Annual Meeting. Subjects currently on the website’s table of contents are: background, if you choose not to attend SAA 2011, if you are attending SAA 2011, what anyone can do, and links of interest. Visitors to the site can add their comments to the discussion. This would be a valuable resource should the situation arise again.
The most crucial action would be for SAA to adopt a labor dispute clause for inclusion in all contracts signed with future conference hotels. Such a statement should include a requirement that SAA only meet in facilities with current union contracts and, if a dispute does arise, the Society be absolved of any cancellation penalties. According to a February 23 statement the SAA Council has already moved in this direction. “Stemming from this debate the Council and staff will analyze the best methods to integrate social responsibility issues into its negotiations and contracts with future conference venues.” This should be an item on this year’s business meeting and, as soon as the conference is over, SAA should take up the task and have a labor dispute policy in place before next year’s planning really begins.
More easily accomplished would be presenting objective information about this year’s developments so that those attending the conference know what has transpired. This could be done in print or as a special session on this year’s program. And perhaps the most immediate possibility would be for SAA members in attendance to reach out to UNITE HERE and join the picket line.
It Has Happened Before
Other professional associations, when confronted by labor disputes at conference sites have not been so prudential as SAA. Over a similar issue this year the American Sociological Association moved its Annual Meeting from Chicago to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas! In 2005 the Organization of American Historians relocated their meeting from San Francisco to San Jose because of an UNITE HERE boycott at the San Francisco Hilton.
SAA has actually had this situation before. In the 1990s SAA was meeting at a hotel in Denver under boycott by the NAACP. At that time SAA did not take corrective actions and consequently finds itself in a similar situation today. Hopefully, this time the Council will take action so that it does not happen a third time.
The Society of American Archivists, founded in 1936, is the oldest, and, with a membership of over 5,500, the largest national archival professional association in North America. They are headquartered in Chicago.
UNITE HERE, Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, represents over 15,000 hotel and food service workers in Chicago and casino workers in Northwest Indiana.
The Hyatt hotel chain is owned by the Pritzker family, one of America’ wealthiest families. Eleven family members were on the 2009 Forbes list of “The 400 Richest Americans,” each with a net worth of over one billion dollars. According to an article in April 19, 2011 Chicago Tribune Business, the Pritzkers are preparing to decrease their ownership to less than half of Hyatt’s outstanding common stock, but family members would continue to control 73% of the voting power through a dual-stock structure that gives the Pritzkers ten times the voting power of other stockholders. Penny Pritzker was national finance chair of the Barack Obama presidential campaign.
Most of the material in this article was drawn from public documents of the named parties.