Why is the RAC Holding Social Justice Conventions at Boycotted Hotels?

When it was announced that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) had signed contracts with Hyatt Hotels for upcoming conventions – including their signature Consultation on Conscience and L’Taken Social Justice Seminars – many who stood in solidarity with Hyatt workers believed it was moment of truth for the Jewish community. Would the RAC, one of the most prominent and venerable social justice organizations in the American Jewish community, go ahead with their plans to hold high profile conventions in boycotted hotels?  Or would they grasp the critical importance of this moment and opt to hold their events elsewhere?

Some background:

When they learned of the contracts, concerned Jewish clergy as well as the Hyatt workers’ union, UNITE HERE, formally asked the RAC and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to honor the recently announced global boycott of Hyatt. Last month, the URJ and RAC met with union leaders and Hyatt employees. They learned that Hyatt summarily fired nearly 100 housekeepers from three Boston-area hotels in August 2009, replacing longtime housekeepers with temps at far lower rates of pay.  They learned that Hyatt has been undermining the stability of jobs by increasingly subcontracting their workers. They learned Hyatt has been undermining the safety of jobs by increasing housekeeping workloads to dangerous levels. And they learned that Hyatt has been actively thwarting efforts by non-union hotel workers to exercise their fundamental right as workers to collectively bargain.

The RAC and the URJ also heard from high ranking officials at Hyatt. Not surprisingly, Hyatt challenged the union’s claims of unjust treatment of workers. While they admitted there may have been problems at some of their hotels in the past, they insisted that they had now been addressed.

After deliberating, the organizations publicized their final decision. In a released statement, the URJ/RAC opened with an affirmation of the Reform movement’s long-time support for unions and the labor movement, dating back to the days of “the historic Jewish garment trade unions.” (It was right about here that I started to get that familiar sinking feeling…)  After laying out an extended description of their deliberation process, they announced their decision: they had “decided not to seek to move the events in question from Hyatt hotels.”

In a subsequent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, (“When Principles and Interests Collide,” November 3, 2012) columnist (and senior adviser to the RAC) Leonard Fein offered what was essentially a condensed version of the original statement. While he recognized “the challenges faced by many hotel workers” and believed the Reform movement was “at the forefront of efforts to provide greater rights and protections for hotel workers,” Fein wrote that the request by UNITE HERE was still “hardly a no-brainer.”

The RAC/URJ statement gave three essential reasons for their decision:

1. They had done due diligence.  Prior to entering into the contracts, the URJ/RAC checked each specific hotel on INMEX (Information Meeting Exchange), a system established by UNITE HERE to help non-profits avoid entering into contracts with hotels involved in labor disputes. Because the contracts were signed long before the Hyatt global boycott was announced, none of the Hyatt hotels in question were listed as having any labor disputes at the time.

2. The situation was “complex.” Because boycotts affect “many stakeholders who have no involvement in the disputes,” the URJ/RAC only honors boycotts “in certain exceptional circumstances.”  In determining whether to honor a boycott, their process requires “detailed investigation, meetings with as many stakeholders as possible, hearing and considering arguments on all sides, and going through the often arduous process of trying to validate the claims made by the various parties.”  In the end, their support for boycotts is “the exception and not the rule.”

3. It would cost the Reform movement a great deal of money. The URJ/RAC has a fiduciary responsibility to the congregations and donors who have entrusted their funds to them. The cancellation of the contracts would cost $450,000 in penalties – funds that are critically needed given the enormous fiscal constraints on Reform congregations and the movement at large.  The loss of the money would also impede the RAC’s ongoing efforts to promote social justice, including decent working conditions in hotels. And even if they did break the contracts it would ultimately profit Hyatt hotels, as none of the $450,000 would go to the labor union or the workers.

The statement concluded:

We respect those who disagree with us. For those who do disagree, let us point out that no one has to stay at a Hyatt to participate in our conferences. We hope they will join us in education programs on the situation of workers to be held at the conferences, showing our support for hotel workers, including those at Hyatt.

For those of us who have long been fighting in the trenches with Hyatt workers for fair treatment and dignity it is particularly galling that the URJ/RAC claim to support “hotel workers, including those at Hyatt” even as they refuse to honor the workers’ boycott. For embattled workers, a boycott is the most important and effective tool for shifting the balance of power. It is plainly disingenuous for the URJ/RAC to refuse the Hyatt workers’ boycott call while claiming to support their cause.

Such a stance also misses the essential point of solidarity.  In the labor movement, as with all movements of liberation, solidarity means truly listening to the voices of those who are oppressed. It means allowing them – and not us – to be the architects of their liberation. It is patronizing in the extreme for the URJ/RAC to purport to support Hyatt hotel workers by saying, in essence, “we support your cause, but we’re going to support it our way – not your way.”

Let’s take a closer look at the rationales the URJ/RAC offered for refusing to rescind the Hyatt contracts:

1. The URJ/RAC claimed that it checked with the INMEX list and saw “there were no disputes with the Hyatt hotels in question.” In fact, INMEX does not include the union hotel guide and boycott list on its website because these lists are not useful for situations such as this – i.e., when organizations plan events far in the future. The UNITE HERE boycott list explicitly warns Group Customers that they should not solely rely on the list of currently boycotted hotels when planning events many months or years in advance.  In such cases, groups should “insist on protective contractual language”  that would address the eventuality of a future labor dispute or boycott.  For whatever reason, the URJ/RAC failed to do this. In any event, their claim that they checked the boycott list does not suffice as an valid excuse.

2.  While it is true that there are many “stakeholders” in a boycott, it is it is difficult to deny that vulnerable non-union workers who work for a barely livable wage, who are given increased and often dangerous workloads and who work with the constant risk of replacement by temps have the most at stake in this situation.  The “stakeholder playing field” cannot reasonably be considered level when you consider that workers are going up against an aggressively expanding multi-million dollar corporation. (Hyatt recently reported that its third quarter net profit earnings jumped 64% to $23 million compared to this time last year.)

On the subject of stakeholders, it bears noting that JB Pritzker, a principal owner of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, has long been a significant donor to the URJ and the RAC. Moreover, as late as 2010 he was listed as a member of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, serving at the Chair’s discretion. While there is no proof that Pritzker had any undue influence on the movement’s decision, this point is certainly germane to any discussion of significant “stakeholders.”

3. The URJ/RAC cites its fiduciary responsibility to its Reform movement constituents when considering the potential $450,000 in penalty fees for breaking its contracts with Hyatt. This overtly corporate rhetoric belies Reform Judaism’s status as a religious movement that considers social justice to be a central element of its mission. While it is certainly true that the Reform movement has a fiduciary responsibility to its members, it could also argued that the URJ/RAC has a stronger spiritual/ethical responsibility to its constituents to serve as a role model for its deeply cherished religious values of worker justice.

As the clergy report on the Hyatt, “Open the Gates of Justice,” states:

As religious leaders with a commitment to the moral bottom line, we consider it unacceptable when in good times employers keep their profits for themselves and in bad times they pass on their losses to their workers. We insist that the best business practice is the one that benefits workers, many of whom have served their hotels for over two decades. The best business practice benefits the guests, who want their rooms cleaned by trained and dedicated staff and who have sufficient time to do a thorough job cleaning each room. The best business practice benefits the community, which thrives on good jobs at good wages but which loses economic strength when the workforce is paid below a living wage.

In truth, many organizations that have honored the boycott have renegotiated their contracts with Hyatt to reduce or waive penalty fees. But even if they go forward with the contracts as they are, it is spurious to argue that the $450,000 in penalties would only benefit Hyatt and not the workers. After all, by contracting with the hotels, the URJ/RAC will ultimately pay Hyatt a significantly higher sum.  On the other hand, Hyatt workers would almost certainly exchange a $450,000 penalty put into the pockets of Hyatt for the invaluable and uplifting moral support they would gain from the public solidarity of the Reform movement.

I personally know many courageous Reform rabbis who have long stood in solidarity with Hyatt workers – and who are deeply offended that the Religious Action Center will be hosting social justice conventions at boycotted hotels. The URJ/RAC statement certainly does not stand for them and, I wager, for many lay members of the Reform movement who still cherish their denomination’s historic commitment to social justice.

My Reform colleagues understand that a real commitment to workers cannot end with the honoring of past struggles. It is simply not enough to invoke the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and offer bland statements about the historic role Jews played in building the American labor movement.

True solidarity means understanding that the struggle ever continues – and that there are flesh and blood “stakeholders” in our own day who call on us to support the sacred cause of worker justice.

Click here to re/affirm a pledge to support the Hyatt boycott.

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