Monday, January 10, 2011

An AALS Sonnet, AALS Shame, and Other Thoughts from the SF Hilton Picket Line

  Aals_logoGiven the charge of reflexive moral exhibitionism by James Young on Rick's post this past Friday on the picketing by law professors and others at the San Francisco Hilton during the recent annual meeting of the Assocation of American Law Schools (AALS), I thought rather than answer James directlty, I would try to show some of the emotion and heart on display in solidarity with the Hilton HERE Local 2 hotel workers for obtaining a better contract this past Friday at a rally and on the line.  

I thought long and hard about whether to post my AALS Sonnet which I read publicly at the Law and Humanities Section panel on Saturday morning in San Francisco and whether to post Professor Rachel Arnow-Richman's inspiring speech at the rally, but with Rachel's permission, I publish both here.  Sure, some like James, will jeer at some ivory-towered-types like us engaging in what they might believe is facile righteous indignation.  But I believe all human beings must work hard to develop a space or a place between righteous indignation and shame over not saying anything, and that is what I seek to do in this post. In addition to being real to myself, my hope is that this post also provides a good example for students and others who have read this blog over the years.

An AALS Sonnet

by Professor Paul M. Secunda

I was filled with rage,
AALS, shame!
Workers' rights a mess,
Professional Progressives against us.

Prager, Hanson, and Olivas
Why is there so little trust?
Lawprofs are human beings too,
Concerned with worker dignity through and through.

Will union rights live to fight another day?
Labor profs ready to walk away.
Full of frustration and distrust,
Thinking of not coming next year, better off.

I am today filled with rage,
But future tomorrows light my way.

Remarks at Local HERE 2 San Francisco Hilton Hotel Rally

by Professor Rachel Arnow-Richman

Friends and Colleagues, Organizers and Workers, I am so honored to stand before you today.

My awe and appreciation for everything you have done has deepened (as has my faith in your ultimate success) each day that I myself have worked to try to relocate this conference.

And let me tell you why.

First the good news – through the hard work of the people like Karl Klare, Gary Peller, Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer, and David Harlan, over 2/3 of the AALS conference has been relocated out of the Hilton!

Next the bad news – In the course of trying to achieve this result, we have seen AALS engage in depressingly familiar tactics:  Beginning with stonewalling, delay, replacing principled faculty who refused to appear in the Hilton with other speakers. Do you recognize any of these moves? 

These tactics – straight out of the anti-union management playbook – culminated last night in a refusal to adopt a non-binding resolution asking AALS to do more next time to avoid siting a hotel in the midst of an active labor dispute.  What was their rationale?  That it would impair their “organizational flexibility” and cost millions of dollars that would ultimately come out of our pockets as dues-paying members.

This response has been the cause of tremendous frustration and indignation for principled faculty.  But luckily for us AALS is not our employer. 

Imagine for just a moment that these games were being played not by a professional society with whom we voluntarily affiliate, but by the company who paid our salaries, a company that had the right to set the terms and conditions of our employment, to terminate us at will.

If you can imagine that and imagine the courage it would take to be as outspoken as we have been in those circumstances, then you begin to imagine the circumstances under which Local 2 is waging its battle. 

And you might also come to appreciate the importance of our role as faculty in that struggle. 

You the professors have a special duty to stand up for these brave workers.  Not only are we as faculty committed professionally (through our research and teaching) to the cause of justice, but we enjoy a freedom of speech, a security in our employment, and a voice in the governance of our workplaces that is unheard of in the contemporary economy.  If those of us who enjoy the privileges and security of academic employment don’t speak out on behalf of these workers who will? 

So I call on all of the law professors to honor this boycott and to stand in solidarity with these incredibly brave women and men of Unite/HERE! Local 2. 


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I'm just mystified by the assumption of the picketing professors that Local 2 is on the side of right - and that their bargaining positions are so reasonable that they should be supported by these professors, and the AALS. As I'm not involved in the negotiations, I know that I don't know which side is being unreasonable, and which side should/could provide more concessions.

I do know, however, that the union is utilizing one of its economic weapons in an effort to gain concessions out of the company. As is only natural in a labor dispute. But just because the union has successfully called a strike does not mean that its position is reasonable, or even rational (or that it isn't).

It's concerning to me that law professors are automatically assuming that justice lies on the side of the union and striking employees. For some reason, I assume that they would know enough to know that they cannot judge the 'right' side of a conflict like this from the outside - but I guess they cannot.

Posted by: T | Jan 10, 2011 2:05:16 PM

I understand why individuals would question the strike and what the issues are that lead to the union striking. I am sure there is plenty of information out there about the issues at the table and it wouldn't be hard to get the Hotel's side of bargaining. Simply ask the question. Either way, as with any situation, when the picket line is up, it is a moral obligation to honor the line and not cross. I am glad to see that the professors stood with workers and hopefully use this as example for teaching students back at their law schools who really don't have any first-hand experience with unions and their struggles.

Posted by: Joan Hill | Jan 11, 2011 4:10:38 AM

Wow, that's a terrible poem, a perfect example of sacrificing art to politics. A bad poem doesn't become a good poem just because it's "politically correct."

Posted by: JD | Jan 11, 2011 4:53:31 AM

Asking the question is a waste of time in many circumstances. I had a strike a few years ago, where the union simply told us that we were being unfair, and were unlawfully hiring subcontractors (which is something we had done before). Over the phone - they refused to provide more details. At a quiet table in Houlihan's - they told me that they wanted us not to hire ABC contractor in the future, but we could hire any other non-union contractor we wanted, just not ABC. I can promise you that the union would never tell an outsider, even a well meaning professor, this kind of thing, because it is an unlawful demand to make. In that case, we were willing to make the concession. I have no idea what is underlying the union's demands in SF (and I don't assume it is unlawful). I do know that the union is not going to share its true negotiating position with an outsider, nor is the hotel.

Assuming Local 2's issue is about medical co-pays, you are not going to be able to make an informed assessment without a survey of SF hotels' pay and benefits and a good look at the hotel's current and projected financials. Anything else, is just rhetoric.

And why is it a moral obligation? These professors are not members of Local 2, or even Unite HERE. These professors are likely not even union members of any union. However, some of these professors will be teaching students about labor law. Should they be teaching those students that people should never cross picket lines? Is that a true statement with respect to the fundamentals of labor law? While professors obviously have the freedom to refuse to cross a picket line as dictated by their conscience, a strong movement within the AALS to do so disturbs me.

Many labor arbitrators are also professors (or vice versa). Is the AALS doing those members a disservice, by so publicly aligning itself with labor? There are plenty of management side labor attorneys who will avoid choosing professors for this very reason (although I am not one of them).

Yes - everyone should be concerned with worker dignity, but the proper way to allocate medical co-pays does not necessarily touch upon worker dignity. If no union member can afford health care, I would agree that it does. If Local 2 members at the Hilton have the lowest co-pay in the city of SF, compared to other major hotel chains, I would say that it certainly does not. Likely, the truth is somewhere in between.

Posted by: T | Jan 11, 2011 5:41:38 AM

Oh, and Prof. Secunda, the AALS is purportedly not an organization of "professional progressives" but a representative of an academic group, i.e., law schools, that, again purportedly, should have no set positions on any ideological issue.

Posted by: JD | Jan 11, 2011 6:29:43 AM

I usually do not respond to people like "T" and "JD" who do not have the courage of their convictions to tell us who they really are and what interests they represent, but I want to make two quick points in any event.

1. I am a horrible poet, I admit, but when the spirit moves ya, you gotta push forward.

2. A little absurd to believe that I am reflexively supporting the hotel workers without knowing anything about the strike. Remember, people, I am a former management-side lawyer for one of the largest firms in the country. I read the materials from both sides, heard arguments from both sides of the debate, and made my decision to honor the consumer boycott (not a strike, people. You need to understand the difference).

Let me end by quoting one of the people who inspires me, Professor Jack Getman, who said at the Local 2 Rally last Friday:

The employer isn't always wrong and the union isn't always right, but, in this case, the union could not be more right in its dispute with the Hilton.

If people wish to educate themselves on the issue, you can see statements from the hotel, law professors in support of the boycott, and the union a the following links:



Posted by: Paul M. Secunda | Jan 11, 2011 7:38:19 AM

Thanks, Paul. Your postings are heartening.

Posted by: Gwen Handelman | Jan 11, 2011 9:25:30 AM

Meh. I usually post with my name or other identifying details, but in this case, it didn't seem necessary - or desirable. Either what I wrote is credible, or it is not. Either way, my name wouldn't change that - on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

And that assumes that any name here is accurate in the first place. Sockpuppets are not uncommon on the internet.

Regardless, having reviewed the sites you posted, I don't see what makes the union's cause so undeniable. It appears that hotel employees have free health insurance for the employee, and $10 a month cost for family coverage. The hotels want employees to pay a portion of that cost. Having seen health insurance plans all over the country - that's a very nice benefit, not enjoyed by most americans. Should every employee paying more that $10 per month for family coverage go on strike? Or those who do not have complementary meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) as well as pension, legal, childcare, education and banquet funds?

The union has stated that it wants:

* Affordable, high-quality health care (doesn't everyone? Does this actually exist, anywhere?)
* Modest increases in wages (reasonable, but nothing unique)
* Modest improvement in pension (even more reasonable, depending on the funding status of their pension fund - also nothing unique)
* The right for workers at non-union properties to choose whether to form a union, free of management coercion and interference (I'm guessing this is a citywide card check and neutrality agreement - this is more unique, but is not terribly compelling to me.)
* Improved workload conditions (this is so important to the union, that it comes last, without any detail. I know that Unite HERE has been pushing a link between carpel tunnel and increased room minimums, but I don't remember seeing any studies. Also, if it was necessary, I would think OSHA would have been already involved).

This is from the union's own website. I've seen nothing which would indicate that Unite HERE could 'not be more right.' Is it just trendy to support SF hotel workers in their strikes every four years? How come I haven't seen a similar outpouring of support for better working conditions for miners? Is it because SF if more fun to visit than WV?

T (just T!) :)

Posted by: T | Jan 12, 2011 9:50:57 AM

Let me preface this comment by saying that (a) as far as I can tell, the strikers have the better of the argument, and (b) I stayed in a union-organized hotel rather than the Hilton in part for that reason. That said, though, I have reservations about AALS taking a position on this strike. AALS is, rather oddly, an organization of law schools, not law faculty, and I doubt that many of our law schools either took a position on the strike or, were the issue raised, would have taken a position. Whether individuals wanted to was up to them.

Those honoring the strike properly note that they were perforce deprived of some of the value of the conference, in that they were unable to attend sessions at the Hilton, go to the exhibition hall, and mingle at either with colleagues. But the consequence was that we all were deprived of some of the value of the conference; chance meetings and casual conversations were much reduced when the conference was split among three venues. And let us not forget cost. It is easy to pooh-pooh the added expense, but isn't that foolish? Pretty much all of our schools are pinched financially. If AALS has to raise membership dues or registration fees to make up for the costs it has just incurred, that money comes from somewhere. Scholarships? Support staff? Library materials?

I suppose in the end I look at this as a massive exercise in externalities. Those wanting to assist the union were able to do so quite visibly, which was no doubt satisfying, and may have given some marginal benefit to the union, which on the whole is, I think, a good thing. But in doing so they imposed added costs upon every school and every participant. I don't know whether those costs are greater than the benefits of making the move. What I do know is that they were borne, and will continue to be borne, by those who are either indifferent or opposed to the union's position here, or who are sympathetic but of the view that AALS ought not uproot a meeting for this reason. Were those wanting the meeting relocated to have paid the costs of doing so, that might be another matter -- though even then there would be other costs, such as fewer opportunities for serendipitous discussions and added inconvenience. But had someone suggested this and passed the hat round, I very much doubt it would have filled. That is the way of externalities. However, it is not too late for some internalization. If AALS passes the costs of the reshuffling on to member schools and to registrants for next year's meeting, those who urged the move can always make a suitable donation to their law schools or, if colleagues will pay their own way, directly to them. Just a suggestion.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mous | Jan 12, 2011 10:01:52 AM

Paul, I appreciate your response. I, for one, didn't assume you were taking a reflexive position on the labor dispute. But I wonder whether you could speak to the point made by one of your commentators, without trying to tie you to it. If one were to disagree with the position of the union in this case, would it still be a moral obligation to honor the boycott (or a picket line, in the case of an actual strike)? Would one have a moral obligation not to honor the boycott or strike in that case? Or just no obligations one way or the other?

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 12, 2011 11:21:17 AM

Thanks for all the additional thoughts and questions everyone. A few more responses:

1. T - I don't like the word "meh." Not sure why, just never have. As for your analysis of the union's website, fair enough. I think you and I just see the appropriate relationship between employees and employers differently.

2. Anon Y. Mous - Let me guess, law and economics type? I think your analysis illustrates in some ways the limits of that analysis. You just seem to assign random numerical values here and there and then decide that law professors in favor of the union boycott should pay back their law schools. Whatever. I don't think you can quantify or commoditize things like work justice and dignity so easily.

3. Paul H. - a person with a name! As usual, a very thoughtful question. Whether some who disagrees with the union has to honor a boycott because they are generally pro-union is a difficult question of principles and what type of message you choose to send through your actions. There are some people who will never ever cross a picket line no matter what, regardless of the nature of the individual strike. I clearly don't fall into that category as a former management-side lawyer. On the other hand, there are many people who always cross picket lines whether they are for the union or not (maybe just the hassle of not being able to network freely like Anon. Y. Mouse points out). But I would think most people are somewhat in the middle as far as how they view their moral obligations vis-a-vis a union picket line. So, I would go with no "obligation" one way or the other.

Posted by: Paul M. Secunda | Jan 13, 2011 12:04:53 PM

Why I Did Not Give My AALS Presentation and Instead Am Joining the Picket Line

In talking to my colleagues I have found a lot of misunderstandings about the situation of the San Francisco Hilton workers and the role of unions in general. As a result I thought it would be useful if I briefly told you why I support the workers’ boycott and will be walking the picket-line today instead of giving the presentation I was invited to give at the AALS.

The hotel workers’ contract expired in August of 2009. Since that time they have been working without a contract because they cannot reach an agreement with management. The workers are asking for a modest increase in wages and pension benefits while management is insisting on a wage and benefit freeze, increased health insurance contributions from employees , decreased insurance coverage for new employees and increased work assignments of as much as 40% (maids would have to clean 20 rooms a day rather than the current 14).

The workers have engaged in periodic three day strikes, but because they fear being permanently replaced by management, they have settled on a strategy of asking people not to patronize the Hilton until it reaches terms. The workers in the building are asking you not to enter the building in order to put pressure on management to come to terms. Although that seems contradictory, remember that they can lose their jobs if they don’t enter the building, but you can go elsewhere and keep your job.

Hilton is right that the hotel workers are asking for higher wages and benefits than non-union workers, but that’s sort of the idea of unions. Workers bind together to bargain on a more equal footing with management and do better than they would individually. The Hilton workers are an ethnically and racially diverse group, mostly women, who average $30,000-35,000 a year. Hilton is very profitable and charges a lot for their rooms and services. They can afford to pay union wages, they just prefer not to.

Although it is true that this dispute has gone on for some time and the AALS had lots of notice that this could be a problem, union organization at a hotel itself is not generally a problem for holding conferences at a hotel. As Chair of the Labor Law Group I can tell you that we exclusively use union hotels and have never had a problem, nor even experienced that prices were higher in union hotels. I would allege however that service is better in union hotels.

In a dispute like this, I have to side with the workers over the big rich multinational corporation. Call me a bleeding heart, but that’s just how I roll. The alternative seems to be to side with Hilton in bludgeoning the workers into accepting less pay and benefits and working longer hours under the threat of losing their jobs. It is my opinion that the interests of working class people are under-represented in the ordering of our society while the interests of rich multinational corporations are over-represented. As a result, I seek to add my support to the workers’ interests rather than the corporate interests, even though the workers’ interest is the “crass material interest” of how much they get paid and work. What is Hilton’s grand ideal in this dispute? Freedom of contract?

With respect to the presentation I was invited to give at the AALS, all of the presenters on my panel asked that the session be moved out of the Hilton and the Section found alternative space, but the AALS required a unanimous vote by the Section’s Executive Committee to move the Section and one ass hole on the Committee voted against it. Why the AALS required a unanimous vote of our Executive Committee has never been made clear to me. As a result, I and other members of my panel will not be giving our presentations and have been replaced in the program by a young academics who do not share our principles (ie scabs).

I will admit some frustration with all the equivocation and excuses I have heard from my colleagues to allow them violate the boycott. If NOW, the NAACP, La Raza or the ILGA were boycotting the Hilton hotel, I doubt the AALS would require unanimous votes to move sections and indeed doubt we would be having the conference at the Hilton at all. I would agree with my colleagues that the conference should be moved under those circumstances and would also respect those boycotts. I find it troubling that academics find it so easy to recognize the concerns of these groups and ignore the concern of working people over how much they bring home to their families for working away their lives in some thankless job.

PS You can always find a good union hotel of any size in any city at

Posted by: Ken Dau-Schmidt | Jan 19, 2011 9:18:27 PM

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