Westin Long Beach: A Message to AFS Members from the Executive Board
Saturday, March 14, 2015
Posted by: Tim Lloyd
AFS has recently learned that a demonstration by the UniteHere labor organization (which represents hospitality-industry workers, primarily hotel housekeeping and food service employees) has begun outside two Long Beach hotels, including the Westin Long Beach, the site of our 2015 annual meeting.
This demonstration began just a few weeks ago, and we heard about it in its very early days. Since that time, our staff has undertaken background work to understand the issues behind the demonstration, in preparation for an Executive Board discussion that took place on March 13. They have been in direct communication with the union, the hotel, and the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau; with other learned societies that have experienced similar issues; with ConferenceDirect, which helps AFS find and evaluate meeting sites and negotiate hotel contracts; and with legal counsel.
What has led to this demonstration?
Several hotels in Long Beach are unionized, but most—including the Westin—are not. In 2012, Long Beach voters passed a living-wage law that set a minimum wage for hotel workers that is currently $13.25 per hour and provided several other worker benefits, and the Westin Long Beach operates under the terms of this law.
UniteHere has informed us that they want the Westin Long Beach to allow a worker vote on the unionization of the hotel’s housekeeping and food service employees. Thus far there has apparently been little direct communication between the union and the hotel about this matter. However, it does appear that the union and hotel prefer different systems for a vote on unionization, and that each believes that the system proposed by the other is detrimental to a free and fair election. UniteHere has asked us, as it is asking all organizations planning to meet at the Westin, to boycott the hotel by not holding our annual meeting there.
Are Westin Long Beach workers on strike?
No, the workers at this hotel are not on strike. At present, UniteHere staff and some Westin Long Beach employees are simply demonstrating in front of the hotel as a means of raising awareness of their position.
Will AFS participate in a boycott?
AFS supports the right of workers to decide whether to be represented by a union, and we know that many of our members feel strongly about issues of workers’ rights. We have urged, and will continue to urge, the union and hotel to begin communicating so that they can resolve the issues between them in a timely and collaborative way.
We also value the sustainability of AFS as an organization; the Executive Board's primary responsibility is to support AFS’s fulfillment of its mission. The contracts we sign for our annual meeting, typical of convention contracts in general, stipulate financial penalties to AFS if we withdraw from the contract. These penalties represent the hotel’s lost sleeping-room and meeting revenue from AFS and from our members who would have attended the meeting and stayed at the hotel, and they increase as the meeting date approaches. If we were to withdraw from this contract now, we would be liable for financial penalties totaling $99,000; if we withdraw after mid-July, those penalties would increase to $132,000.
To put these amounts into perspective, the larger penalty figure represents approximately 25% of AFS’s annual operating expenses—significantly more than the annual cost of producing either the annual meeting or the Journal of American Folklore. Paying these penalties would eliminate almost two-thirds of our reserve fund, which in turn would significantly diminish our ability to hold this and future meetings and to carry out our other activities that support our members and our field.
As Board members, our primary responsibility is to sustain AFS and its central mission of supporting the field of folklore studies as a whole. The financial penalties associated with breaking our contract will substantially affect AFS’s capacity to address this most central mission. After careful deliberation, the Executive Board has determined that AFS will not participate in a boycott of the Westin Long Beach at this time.
How will AFS respond?
While AFS will not participate in a boycott, we have informed both the union and the hotel that we urge them to resolve the issues between them in a timely and collaborative way. We will continue to make this case. We will also monitor the situation as discussions between the hotel and union begin and proceed, and will keep our members updated on new developments.
Accordingly, at its March 13-14, 2015 meeting AFS’s Executive Board voted in favor of a resolution to:
1) Maintain our plans to hold our 2015 annual meeting at the Westin Long Beach
2) Remain in contact with the hotel and union to urge them to resolve the issues between them as soon as possible
3) Begin an ongoing process of providing information to our members about this situation and about AFS’s response
What does AFS plan to do about such situations in the future?
At present, AFS has signed contracts for our annual meetings in 2016 (Miami) and 2017 (Minneapolis). These contracts contain the same language as in our contract for Long Beach this year: they allow us to withdraw from the contract without penalty in the case of strikes but not in the case of non-strike labor disputes.
Accordingly, the Board’s resolution also called for AFS to:
4) Discuss with our 2016 and 2017 annual meeting hotels the renegotiation of our contracts to provide AFS with greater flexibility in similar situations
5) Whenever possible, incorporate similar language in contracts for our annual meetings for 2018 and beyond
6) Give preference to unionized hotels in our annual meeting site searches for 2018 and beyond, and include information about this preference in the requests for proposals we distribute to the convention industry as we search for sites
This situation has prompted extensive and thoughtful discussion at the Board table about a number of issues surrounding site selection and contract negotiation for our annual meeting. As this situation in Long Beach develops, and as Board conversation on these subjects continues, we may take other actions regarding this year’s annual meeting or those we hold in the future.
Will AFS members have opportunities to become informed about this situation, and to provide comments and questions to the Board?
Yes. Members may comment directly on this AFS Review news item. Members may also direct their comments and questions to AFS Executive Director Tim Lloyd, who will share them with the Executive Board. Members can also use the Annual Meeting Forum (see the Folklore Commons/Forums) to share comments and questions. Finally, before the end of March we will create a page on the AFS website where we will post new information about this matter as we learn of it.