October 10, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

Planning a conference is a pain in the neck.  There are loads of details to attend to and the only time you get a little relief is when you can cross tasks off that long, long to-do list.  Now imagine learning that clergy, women’s groups, labor organizations, immigrants’ rights networks and others are urging individuals to boycott the venue where your conference is scheduled.  You signed that hotel contract ages ago, paid that hefty deposit and crossed that item off your list.  What a dilemma.  It’s the exact one faced in the last few weeks by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO).

The group’s 9th annual international conference is scheduled for March 23-24, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.  They’d booked their event in 2011 at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City, which is known for its close proximity to National Airport and a short subway ride into Washington, DC.  But a a few months ago, the AFL-CIO announced that it was officially endorsing UNITE HERE!’s global boycott of Hyatt Hotels. The AFL-CIO would be joining the NFL Players’ Association, the Association of Flight Attendants, the National Organization for Women, the United Farmworkers Union and thousands of other individuals and groups who support the efforts of workers at Hyatt to secure better wages and working conditions.   The AFL-CIO’s endorsement of the boycott changed things for ADAO, an organization whose leadership understands that human rights, public health, and worker safety go hand-in-hand.

The Hyatt hotel workers’ struggle for dignity on-the-job is captured in “Open the Gates of Justice.”  The report was written by a coalition of Jewish clergy who interviewed Hyatt workers in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas.  They learned that the multi-billion Hyatt corporation’s business model relies heavily on outsourcing jobs to staffing agencies.  The clergy wrote:

“As part of our investigation, members of the clergy committee met with employees, who work at Hyatt hotels, but are supplied by a subcontracting agency, Hospitality Staffing Solutions (HSS). HSS is one among a number of subcontractors Hyatt uses to staff its hotels. HSS employees, some of whom have worked at a Hyatt hotel for seven or eight years, are typically paid minimum wage with no sick days, vacation days, or pension. None were able to pay for health insurance for their families and were reliant on state support for family health care. HSS workers who applied for jobs directly with hotels were told that hotel contracts with HSS forbid them from directly hiring HSS employees until a year after they left HSS.  HSS workers report how they feel dehumanized and disposable by both Hyatt and HSS managers.”

The clergy investigators also learned about Hyatt managers’ intimidation and interference in the hotel workers’ efforts to form a union, about serious safety hazards and retaliation against those who complain about them.  Rabbi Victor Mirelman said:

“As they were talking, what went through my mind was the image of the taskmasters of Egypt, who would give more work to the Israelites when they complained of harsh treatment.”

Just as the faith leaders’ explained their moral responsibility to promote the ethical treatment of workers and support the Hyatt workers’ boycott, ADAO’s executive director Linda Reinstien explained her organization’s:

“ADAO greatly respects unions and is dedicated to protecting workers’ health and safety, as a collective voice is critically important to ensure workers have fair, safe, and decent jobs.”

Cancelling a hotel contract for a major conference is no small feat.  I don’t know too many organizations that would do it.  Kudos to ADAO for standing with the Hyatt workers and keeping true to the organization’s principles.  I know your 9th annual conference at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Virginia will be the best ever.

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