As hundreds of yogis scurried through Embarcadero Center last Thursday, a small group of impassioned hotel workers joined their voices just a few strides away in protest against the Hyatt hotel chain where the San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference was being held. The demonstration was part of a growing campaign seeking to bring change to an industry accused of abusive and unjust labor practices.
In 2009, Yoga Journal was asked to join the campaign’s global boycott of Hyatt hotels and end its financial support of the institution by moving its conference to a different facility. This weekend, the conference was held as scheduled at the Hyatt.
As news of Yoga Journal’s decision to “ignore the boycott” broke this week, the blogosphere was abuzz with headlines about the company’s failure to stand up for the rights of “exploited hotel workers.” My intention with this article is to shed light on the complex dynamics underlying the boycott, the reasons for Yoga Journal’s decision, and the questions that remain.
The Facts: A History of the Boycott
The dispute between the hotel and its workers began in 2008, when labor contracts between Hyatt Corporation and its employees expired. Hyatt is legally required to negotiate changes to terms of employment – which include wages, benefits, workloads, and the right to organize– with its workers’ union, UniteHere. While negotiations for a new contract were underway, the company began replacing non-union housekeeping staff with temporary subcontracted workers. These workers, who are not directly employed by the chain, come at substantially lower cost – they work for just above minimum wage, and Hyatt isn’t required to provide insurance and other benefits because they’re not full-time employees.
Three years ago in Boston, three non-union Hyatt hotels fired their entire housekeeping staff (many of whom had been working there for decades) and replaced them with workers from a local temporary agency. The city of Indianapolis even passed an ordinance last July to prevent Hyatt and other hotels from engaging in aggressive subcontracting practices. This practice of outsourcing labor has become increasingly common in many different blue-collar industries and allows large corporations to cut labor costs, increase executive pay, and shift any legal responsibility it has to its employees to outside institutions.
That’s when UniteHere, the largest hospitality workers’ union in the country, began helping Hyatt workers organize protests against the corporation. In June 2009, over 400 hotel workers at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco (the same hotel where Yoga Journal holds its conferences) walked off the job to protest abusive working conditions and unfair labor practices.
“Our injury rates are high, our wages are low, and our immigrant sisters are exploited and cheated by Hyatt’s housekeeping subcontractors,” reads a call to action on the UniteHere website. “We will no longer suffer in silence. The abuse must end. Hyatt must change.”
A month later, UniteHere launched a global boycott of Hyatt Hotels, asking consumers around the world to support workers by pledging not to eat, sleep or meet at Hyatt hotels. But a boycott is only effective if it incurs significant costs to the company in dispute, so UniteHere contacted hundreds of companies and organizations (including Yoga Journal) requesting they hold their events at different facilities. The campaign created major waves from the get go – nearly every hotel worker union in the nation endorsed the boycott, and even the NFL Players Association and National Organization of Women pledged to cancel their existing events at the Hyatt until a settlement was reached.
Yoga Journal Chooses Not to Join the Boycott
A few days before the conference began, Yoga Journal released an official statement announcing that (at least for 2013) it planned to honor its existing contract and obligations to its faculty and students by continuing with the conference at Hyatt. I spoke to several Yoga Journal staff members this weekend who told me they feel loyal to the workers at this hotel:
“We’ve been coming to the Hyatt Regency for years,” Elana Maggal, Yoga Journal’s Conference Director, told me. “We love it here. The management knows us. The housekeepers know us. It wasn’t a simple or easy decision – but ultimately, we felt it was important to honor our existing commitment and support workers whose livelihoods depend on this hotel’s business.”
While many have accused Yoga Journal of putting profits before ethics, Maggal told me that oversimplifies what was a painstakingly convoluted decision. When I asked her why Yoga Journal decided not to honor the boycott, she said that moving the conference to a different hotel in San Francisco this year wasn’t possible. They looked into possible alternatives, but could find no facilities in the city that could accommodate their size on the date the conference was scheduled. Essentially, she said, it was either cancel the 2013 conference (and upset a whole lot of presenters and attendees who had already bought tickets) or move it to a different city altogether.
So if Yoga Journal had had more time to look for a different facility, could they have potentially moved this year’s conference? When I inquired about when Yoga Journal first become aware of the dispute, I learned that they were first approached by UniteHere several years ago; although, Maggal told me, at that time the campaign hadn’t “really heated up yet.” Perhaps it wasn’t clear to the company then that the boycott was a legitimate campaign (often labor disputes like this one are resolved internally or disintegrate completely), but that seems unlikely given the press coverage it received back in July 2009. The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and many other major media outlets all reported on the boycott, and given the sheer number of backers, there is no question the campaign had major traction.
Ripple Effects: The Ramifications of Yoga Journal’s Decision
Setting aside moral judgments about whether Yoga Journal was right or wrong in not joining the boycott this year, perhaps the more important question being asked is this:
What’s next? Will Yoga Journal continue to financially support a company that’s been branded by some workers as “the worst employer in the hotel industry”? And what would the consequences be –for Yoga Journal, Hyatt, and its workers – if they move the conference to another hotel next year?
Here’s what I found out: Yoga Journal has a multi-year contract with the Hyatt that isn’t set to end until 2015. If the company chooses to pull out of their contract with the Hyatt next year, it would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars — and in an economy where it’s difficult to make any conference economically viable, that could mean no more conferences for Yoga Journal. “There would be a significant penalty to break the contract,” Maggal told me. “And it would severely impact our ability to continue holding conferences in the future.”
I spoke with Diana Wong, a spokesperson for UniteHere, about the positive impact Yoga Journal could have if it chooses to move its conference.
“Hyatt is a multinational corporation,” she told me, “They deal with numbers, with dollars and cents. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of housekeepers speak up – the Hyatt won’t listen until it’s affecting their bottom line. When Yoga Journal comes back to Hyatt year after year and provides that business opportunity, they’re telling Hyatt they can continue abusing their workers.”
But if the union already has the support of organizations like the NFL, I asked, could Yoga Journal really make a difference by pulling out? “If Yoga Journal were to honor this boycott and withdraw its monetary support of Hyatt’s business practices,” Wong said, “That would speak volumes to the executives of this company. They don’t see the workers in picket lines. They see spreadsheets and numbers.”
I also spoke with David Lewin, the general manager at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, about how the boycott is affecting his business. “The Hyatt is a large company with assets around the world and a reputation that speaks to hospitality. What this union is attempting to do for their own benefit is really just… insane.”
Lewin said the workers at his hotel are unionized and that UniteHere is preventing housekeepers from getting wage increases and benefits a contract would afford. He said his employees are “like family” to him, and that he believes that the union does not have their best interest in mind:
“Boycotting this hotel doesn’t make any sense – why should my workers suffer? They haven’t received a raise in over three years because the union wants to increase their headcount. They’re holding their own workers hostage…. In my opinion, it’s just pathetic. Disgusting and pathetic.”
Is an End to the Boycott on the Horizon?
Everyone I spoke to – from the housekeepers, to Yoga Journal staff, even Hyatt management – expressed hope that an agreement between Hyatt and the union will be reached quickly. So far, Hyatt and the union are reported to have agreed on wages and benefits, but are still caught in a stalemate on other contractual issues.
I asked Wong what it would take for UniteHere to end the boycott. She told me they want the Hyatt to concede on three principle points of disagreement:
1. Health and safety standards: Workers want a clause in their contract that would require the hotel implement key health and safety standards recommended to Hyatt in a formal letter sent by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. While the letter did not indicate that Hyatt had violated OSHA standards, an OSHA spokesman said on-site inspections at Hyatt “did identify the presence of ergonomic risk factors associated with the housekeeping tasks.”
2. Right to Organize: Hyatt workers want what they call a fair process to support non-unionized workers in forming a union. In legal terms, UniteHere wants the contract to include a card check neutrality agreement, which would allow them to ask workers’ at non-union hotels to vote for the formation of a union simply by signing a card. Hyatt, on the other hand, wants to require UniteHere hold secret ballot elections (similar to the process of voting in a major political election) because they say such organizing methods are less coercive and more democratic. “Would you let Mitt Romney or Barack Obama sit with you in the voting booth with you when you’re deciding who to vote for?” Lewin asked. “As a company, we believe card check methods are coercive.”
3. Solidarity clause: The union is advocating for a clause that would allow unionized Hyatt workers to picket, strike or call for boycott in the name of non-unionized Hyatt employees should any future abuses occur. This is by far the most controversial request UniteHere is making in the negotiations, as such a clause would be largely unprecedented in the hospitality industry. “It destroys the point of a contract,” Lewin told me. “Contracts are meant to ensure peace.”
Final Thoughts: One Journalist’s Perspective
After spending the weekend interviewing hotel workers, union organizers, and staff members both at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero and Yoga Journal, it was clear to me that this dispute is far more complicated than the oversimplistic “Yoga Journal Ignores Exploited Workers” portrait that’s been painted by many in the yoga community thus far.
I think it’s important to recognize the complex dynamics at play in labor conflicts like this one. Disputes between companies and unions are often shrouded in jargon and riddled with conflicting information: As a journalist, it was difficult for me to distinguish fact from opinion and truth from manipulated information. Everyone involved – UniteHere, Hyatt, Yoga Journal, even the workers – has their own spin on the story.
Hyatt accuses the union of putting its political interests and membership goals before the needs of hotel workers and effectively preventing workers’ from getting wage increases and other benefits by failing to agree on a contract. The Union claims that Hyatt is a corrupt corporation stomping on the rights of powerless workers.
Unfortunately, the question of “who’s right and who’s wrong” doesn’t seem to have a black and white answer. The collision between business, human rights, and economic realities creates a great deal of ethical gray area.
I’m left wondering about the bigger questions this dispute brings up about ethics and politics, and more specifically whether companies like Yoga Journal have a moral responsibility to defend the rights of everyday people, like the Hyatt workers. Should a company be expected to defend the rights of people in its community? And what is Yoga Journal’s community? Is it limited to the consumers who buy its magazine and attend its conferences, or does the Yoga Journal extend to the American populace in general, which includes workers at the Hyatt?
Does Yoga Journal have a responsibility to continue offering conferences to attendees who come back year after year, even if that means financially supporting a company alleged to abuse its workers? Or does the responsibility to act in accordance with higher ethical standards trump a company’s need to meets its bottom line?
I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions and the information I’ve presented in this article. Please share your responses in the comments section below.
Photo 1: Yogis Uniting Against Workers Rights on Facebook
Photo 2: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images North America
Photo 3: Double Secret Media, via Yoga Journal Conferences