Why Is the OAH Moving Its Convention from San Francisco to San Jose?

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HNN, 2-21-05

Why Is the OAH Moving Its Convention from San Francisco to San Jose?

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.

On February 15th the Organization of American Historians issued a press release indicating that officials had finally decided to move the 98th annual conference to San Jose, California in light of the continuing labor troubles at the San Francisco Hilton, where the conference was originally scheduled. Lee Formwalt, the OAH’s association’s executive director, stated that remaining in San Francisco “would have destroyed the integrity of the meeting,” since many key scholars would choose not to attend on moral grounds. The Hilton is one of fourteen hotels boycotted by the union UNITE HERE. Local 2, the San Francisco hotel workers’ union, staged the boycott to put pressure on the hotels to negotiate new favorable contracts. The old contract expired on August 14, 2004.

The UNITE HERE Local 2 union includes 12,000 workers in the hospitality industries in San Francisco and San Mateo. According to the union’s website; “UNITE HERE!
is the newly-constituted union of workers in North America’s hotel, restaurant, laundry, and textile industries. It was formed in July 2004, from the merger of UNITE! (formerly the Union of Needle trades, Industrial and Textiles Employees and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees), and represents over 440,000 active members in the US and Canada).”

In September, the three UNITE HERE! local’s contracts expired or were close to expiration, and the workers were looking for a far more favorable contract which would include wage and pension increases, and more health care coverage than the hotels have been willing to offer. But the major issue is the length of the contracts that the union workers desire. To give themselves greater leverage over the hotels nationwide, they want all North American Union hotel contracts to expire at the same time: 2006. The San Francisco hotels, worried about giving the unions added leverage and concerned with fresh labor demands in 2006, objected, preferring a longer five-year contract.

The union dispute is with an association of fourteen high-end San Francisco hotels that form the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group. These hotels include: the Hilton San Francisco, Argent Hotel, Crowne Plaza Union Square, Four Seasons, Fairmont, Grand Hyatt Union Square, Holiday Inn Civic Center, Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf, Hyatt Regency Embarcadero Center, Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental, Omni Hotel, Sheraton Palace and the Westin St. Francis. On September 14 even with the contract negotiations still under way the union members decided to strike. USA Today reported that “Close to 97 percent of the 4,300 workers represented by Local 2 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union at 14 hotels voted to strike.”

On September 29, 2004 hotel employees and members of UNITE HERE launched a limited two-week strike against four hotels. The hotels then locked out workers from the ten remaining MEG hotels. The fourteen MEG hotels decided on October 12 to extend the lockout beyond the two-week strike. This prompted the union and their supporters to gather in Union Square for a unity rally in which the Rev. Jesse Jackson, San Francisco religious leaders, and elected officials attended. Later the same evening, Democratic vice presidential candidate, Senator John Edwards, who was on the campaign trail, joined the picket line at the Sheraton Palace, to show his support for San Francisco’s hotel workers. The lockout finally ended on November 20. Near the end of November the mayor of San Francisco , Gavin Newsom, proposed a sixty-day cooling off period which both sides agreed to. During this time the union and MEG attempted to negotiate a new contract. However, the cooling-off period ended on January 23, 2005.

The union initiated a boycott of the hotels beginning in early September. Hotel union president Mike Casey claims that a boycott is “the only way to get a settlement here — when some bean-counter decides it’s better to settle with the union than to continue to lose millions of dollars in business.”‘ Union picketers have distributed leaflets to guests outlining their position. By the third week of the strike union members were asking organizers of upcoming conventions and trade shows to change their plans. Two weeks before the end of 60-day cooling-off period on January 23, union members had contacted over a dozen large convention groups and meeting planners urging them to avoid the hotels and move their business elsewhere, such as the hotels listed on the “safe” list on the UNITE HERE Local 2 website. In response, Matt Adams, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero and a negotiator with the hotel coalition, stated that encouraging convention groups and meeting planners to boycott the hotels is tantamount to harassment. In a January 21, 2005 article in the San Francisco Business Times Adams claimed, “The harassing phone calls to meeting planners have increased dramatically. No one has canceled yet because of it, but it certainly leaves a bad taste in their mouth.”

No one may have cancelled at Adams’s hotel, the Hyatt Regency, but the union’s boycotting tactics convinced a number of academic associations to change the venue of their annual meetings. In October, 2004 the American Anthropological Association decided to relocate its November conference from the Hilton in San Francisco to December at the Hilton in Atlanta. The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of theMLK Labor & Community Breakfast also decided to change its venue from the San Francisco Hilton because of the labor dispute. The chapter, with its 600 participants, held its event instead at the Golden Gateway Holiday Inn, one of the hotels on UNITE HERE’s list of approved hotels. According to Millard Larkin, the event’s coordinator, the change was made “in response to concerns from participants, many of whom are union members, rather than in response to any outside lobbying by UNITE HERE.”

Some associations have declined to change venues. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) initially contemplated moving its November annual meeting from San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency. MESA then decided to have the conference there because the cooling-off period had been instituted, even though many members were not willing to attend the meeting if they had to cross picket lines. In the end 1,400 people attended the MESA meeting.

Other conferences and events that were planned in San Francisco and went off as scheduled despite the unions’ objections included LightShow/West, the inaugural Digital Retailing Expo, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ National Conference & Exhibition, the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, a meeting of CTIA Wireless LT. & Entertainment, and a meeting of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.

As late as January 28, 2005 the OAH was hoping to continue with the original plan to hold the conference in San Francisco, but steps were undertaken to develop a contingency plan. Many OAH members were reluctant to cross picket lines to attend the conference. Members who wanted to ensure that there would be a change in the convention’s venue circulated a petition among OAH members in an attempt to prod the OAH to accommodate union demands. 110 OAH members signed the petition. The OAH itself surveyed the members who had preregistered for the conference. Of 900 registrants, some 500 responded. Seventy-five percent indicated they would not cross a picket line.

In explaining its decision to relocate the conference, the OAH mainly cited practical considerations. If the OAH remained in San Francisco it risked losing up to $412,000 in attrition charges and $99,000 in revenue from registration fees. If the convention was cancelled outright the OAH would have lost in excess of $700,000. Moving the meeting to San Jose, the other closest viable city from San Francisco, is costing the OAH an unbudgeted additional expense of $60,000, plus the money owed to the Hilton San Francisco for previously booked rooms and meeting sites, which could cost as much as $390,000.

The American Anthropological Association also contemplated moving its meeting to San Jose, but decided not to because of the risk the change would have cost the organization up to $1.2 million. Instead, the AAA arranged to meet at the Atlanta Hilton. The AAA’s board approved $50,000 to help graduate students and some foreign scholars with the additional costs that would be incurred because of the change to Atlanta.

This past week, two days after the OAH made its decision to move to San Jose, the San Francisco Business Times’s fifth annual meeting of the Mayors’ Economic Forecast, featuring Mayor Newsom and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, decided to change its venue as well. Originally scheduled at the San Francisco Hilton for February 25, the meeting was moved to the Oakland Convention Center. The change in location was to accommodate Mayor Newsom, who has decided not attend events at the targeted hotels until the dispute is resolved and a contract negotiated. No hotel on the union’s safe list could accommodate the 1,000 people expected for the event. Publisher Mary Huss explained: “It was a business decision. I did not want to move the date for an economic forecast. I have sponsors. It’s a financial decision.”

OAH officials are now scrambling to organize the San Jose convention. This week the OAH will be posting on its website details to help members book hotel rooms in San Jose. Those who fly into San Francisco will be taken by shuttle to San Jose.


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