Letters to the Editor

A Problem of Hypocrisy on Labor Rights

David Brody, May 1994

The February issue of Perspectives carries an announcement of the Council's decision not to hold the 1995 meeting in Cincinnati as scheduled because of the recent referendum in that city barring the city council from enacting or enforcing laws giving equal protection to lesbian, gay, or bisexual citizens. The announcement describes in some detail the sense of outrage within the Association over Cincinnati's action. Less information is given about what its principled action will cost the AHA, but that the cost is expected to be considerable is evident from the Council's provision for the solicitation of voluntary contributions plus necessary dues and other fee increases. The Council did the right thing, and I wholeheartedly support its action. But I am puzzled by its claim that, in so acting, it was reaffirming "its longstanding commitment to human rights and opposition to discrimination in all forms."

This year's San Francisco convention presented the Council with a moral choice just as compelling to my mind as Cincinnati. The people involved were the maids, porters, and other staff of Parc 55, the backup hotel for the convention. The issue was the denial of their basic rights of free association, with attendant discrimination and intimidation of pro-union workers. There was nothing of special note about management's tactics: They are used every day to create a "union-free environment" in this country. What was somewhat unusual was the feisty response of the hotel workers and their union, which included an appeal to patrons to boycott Parc 55 until the dispute was settled. The letter I got back from former executive director Sam Gammon—many others must have received the same letter—was an elaborate explanation for why the Association couldn't breach its contract with Parc 55 because of the "massive legal liability exposure." The Association was prepared, however, to inform members coming to San Francisco of the labor dispute, to attempt to arrange alternative accommodation for those wanting it, and to avoid scheduling sessions at Parc 55. In the event, even this inconvenience proved unnecessary because the hotel gave up the struggle and recognized the union. I'd like to think that we contributed in a small way to that result.

One might conclude that the issue is now moot—except of course for what it says about which matters of social justice move us and which don't. But something more substantial is at stake than a question of conscience. The outcome at Parc 55 was exceptional; nowadays working people mostly lose those battles for basic rights. And that is partly because hotels and the like know that their patrons, the AHA included, really do not care about how they treat their employees. To that extent, we are implicated. Nor is that all. Many hotel service workers are Hispanics, blacks, and other minorities—just the people so desperately underrepresented in our profession. The root of that problem surely is no longer our prejudice, but social conditions that prevent young people from entering the educational pathways to academic careers. Standing up for the rights of their parents at the workplace would in my opinion achieve more in the long run than all the self-serving things we now do in the name of affirmative action.

Let me offer a modest suggestion to the Council. In his letter to me, Gammon remarked that, while the Association would have been "a bit gun-shy" had it known of a labor problem at Parc 55, "we do not make it a practice of asking hotels seeking our business if their labor relations are untroubled." I think we should ask. More particularly, we should (a) give preference to hotels operating under union conditions and (b) reserve the right to withdraw from agreements when in our estimation there are substantial grounds for concluding that the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively are being violated. That would bring our labor policy into conformity with the Council's newly announced policy of making protection against discrimination over sexual orientation a criterion in selecting and negotiating for annual meeting sites. And it would be a small contribution to the ever harder struggle of working people in this country for decent wages, dignity on the job, and basic rights to organize and bargain collectively.

David Brody
University of California at Davis