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AFS President and Executive Director Respond to Westin Long Beach Labor Situation

Thursday, April 23, 2015   (0 Comments)
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AFS president Michael Ann Williams and executive director Timothy Lloyd sent the following message to members and annual meeting registrants on April 24, 2015:

Dear AFS members and 2015 annual meeting registrants,

As the labor situation at the Westin Long Beach continues, UniteHere Local 11 has stepped up its efforts to contact AFS members to ask for your support of its boycott. We realize that these phone calls and emails have left many of you feeling conflicted and wishing that you had more information. We’d like to take this opportunity to respond to some of the claims you may have encountered, to further explain the reasoning behind our decision to proceed with the meeting as planned, and to share with you everything we know at this point.

1. Some of you have expressed a desire to know more about the situation workers at the Westin are facing. We have just received two communications from the union and hotel about this:

In a recent web posting, UniteHere organizers contend that Westin employees have “asked management to remain neutral while they decide for themselves whether to unionize,” and that they have not received this commitment.

In a letter we received yesterday, Westin management says that their employees “have the right to organize a union and that no one will be intimidated or retaliated against for exercising these rights.”

Both sides propose different systems of voting on whether to establish a union, and each side claims that the other side’s system is coercive and unfair. As far as we can tell from here, and despite our repeated encouragement, little meaningful conversation has taken or is taking place between the two camps themselves. And in all of this we have very little idea of where the actual workers stand. We’re not sure of the extent to which Westin employees welcome and support a union, or whether the impetus to organize is coming from inside or outside of the hotel.

2. On April 6, we wrote all annual meeting registrants, letting them know that we believed it unlikely that this situation would be resolved by the time of our meeting and asking those who would be unwilling to take part in a meeting with a labor demonstration going on outside to withdraw by May 1 so that we could avoid the confusion of last-minute withdrawals. To date, one session (with four participants and a chair) has withdrawn from the meeting.

3. As promised, we've established a page on our website that provides a running chronology of communications on this issue, along with links to relevant documents. On this page you can read the most recent letter we sent to the union and hotel on April 7, again urging them to begin communicating. As we’ve said, to date we still have no indication that they have communicated in any significant way.

4. Some of UniteHere’s communications to AFS members have suggested that we could easily move the annual meeting. Here’s what we know about this possibility:

First, as we told you more than a month ago, our contract with the Westin stipulates a penalty that is presently $99,000 if we withdraw from holding our meeting there—a penalty that will increase as October gets closer. UniteHere organizers have called this penalty “unfair.” Regardless of whether it is fair, it is a fact, and it is also the case that such penalties are standard elements of contracts of this sort.

Second, the union offered in a general way to help us find a unionized hotel in Long Beach to host our meeting, but in response to our request for more information two weeks ago, they have offered no specifics about what they would do to help, including what they would do to assist us with the financial penalties. Therefore, in the past week we have undertaken work ourselves to try to identify a unionized hotel in Long Beach that could accommodate all or some of our sleeping rooms and meeting sessions.

We have learned that the unionized hotels in Long Beach—most of which are too small to accommodate our meeting to begin with—are completely booked at or near the time of our meeting. This means that the only hotels that might be available to us are not among those rated “fair” by UniteHere. The Renaissance Long Beach, for example, the only other area hotel to answer the Society’s request for proposals three years ago, is presently undergoing the same demonstrations as the Westin. Moving the meeting to another city is not an option, as doing so would pose even more daunting logistical challenges and would penalize members who’ve already booked their travel.

5. We’ve considered the suggestion that we try to find supplemental meeting space in some other non-hotel venue so that conference attendees who object to staying at or entering the Westin can still participate in some sessions. Even if we found such space, the meeting would be split over multiple venues, possibly at a significant distance; attendees of past meetings have expressed their dissatisfaction with splitting sessions between venues, even when those venues were in close proximity. Moreover, the process of determining who would be assigned to the additional venue, and then scheduling the sessions that took place there in a way that would address all attendees’ needs and ideological positions, would be exceedingly difficult. Most importantly, each year many members express to us their belief that one of the best things about the AFS annual meeting is having all of their colleagues and friends under one roof. To hold two annual meetings at once where members’ senses of obligation are put into conflict would, we think, be contrary to the spirit of the annual meeting.

6. The Westin labor situation was an unexpected development for AFS meeting planners, and we regret that our original contract didn’t include language to protect us in this case. One certain outcome of this experience is our commitment to prefer union-defined “fair” hotels in the future, and to use better protective language in future contracts. In doing so, we will use the model protective language that the union suggests.

As we’ve said from the beginning, we’ll make sure that AFS’s future annual meeting hotel contracts include language addressing not just strikes but labor situations that fall short of a strike, and we’ll make every attempt to ensure that our annual meetings are held in union hotels whenever possible. We apologize for not having better protected ourselves this year, and we’re sorry to have done anything (by commission or omission) to put our Society and its members into this difficult situation.

Given all these circumstances, the Executive Board continues to believe that the Society’s best course of action is to continue its plans to hold the meeting at the Westin, to reiterate to Westin management our collective belief in the rights of its employees, and to urge UniteHere Local 11 and hotel management to work toward a mutually acceptable resolution. UniteHere organizers have been critical of our response, saying it is “not enough.” We understand that the union is undertaking difficult work and is seeking allies, but we can’t oblige their request to do more if it means endangering the future of our Society. We ask for your support in this difficult decision and we hope that you’ll put your knowledge and training to work in creatively addressing your commitment both to workers and workers’ culture, and to your professional association.

With gratitude,

Michael Ann Williams, President
Tim Lloyd, Executive Director

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