Sticking to the Union: Anthropologists and “Union Maids” in San Francisco




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Chapter 10 in Gendered Globalizations: Women Navigating Cultural and Economic Marginalities, edited by Nandini Gunewardena and Ann Kingsolver, SAR Press, forthcoming, (2007). (Please do not cite without permission.)




Sticking to the Union:

Anthropologists and “Union Maids” in San Francisco




Sandy Smith-Nonini


scsmith@email.unc.edu


This union maid was wise to the tricks of the company spies
She couldn’t be fooled by the company’s stools
She’d always organize . . . .


We modern union maids, are also not afraid
To walk the line, leave jobs behind,
We’re not just the ladies’ aide,
We’ll fight for equal pay, And we will get our way
We’re workers too, the same as you,
and we’ll fight the union way.


– Woody Guthrie

Introduction


Throughout the economic boom of the 1990s, waves of immigrants from Mexico and Central America provided cheap labor for American industries, allowing them to undertake profitable expansions and restructure in the pursuit of maximizing production. Today Spanish-speaking women make up a majority of employees in many workplaces, from chicken processing and packaging lines to the cleaning staffs of office buildings.

Service sector jobs have been a key growth sector in this post-modern economy, a development driven by several trends, including free trade agreements and altered business practices such as layoffs and outsourcing. Although some well-paid professional jobs are classified as services, most of the growth has been in low-end jobs, disproportionately held by women and minorities. Many are destandardized jobs, notorious for irregular hours, low pay, poor benefits, and abusive conditions.

For years traditional trade unions wrote off service occupations as too difficult to organize because of their fragmented worksites, high worker turnover, and large numbers of immigrants in the workforces. But in the last 10 years, several unions, most notably, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International (HERE), have bucked the odds, developing innovative strategies and diverting enormous resources into organizing workers such as grocery store clerks, janitors, and hotel and restaurant employees.

The convergence of immigration and economic globalization has also been a growth industry for scholars. Anthropologists, like myself, who frequently study marginalized populations, have often found themselves confronted with the rapid and profound social upheavals resulting from neoliberal policies. Yet, writing about injustice is as far as many anthropologists go; seldom do we find ourselves in a position to catalyze social change.

That changed in October 2004 as roughly 6,000 members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) were finalizing travel plans for attending the AAA annual meeting to be held at the San Francisco Hilton in mid-November. Unbeknownst to most, on September 29 contract renewal negotiations had broken down between a consortium of 14 luxury hotels, known as the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group (MEG), and Local 2 of UNITE-HERE, a giant service workers union formed by the recent merger of the HERE with UNITE, a union that had specialized in the garment and textile trades. The deadlock over health care premiums, pensions, wage increases, and contract length led the union to call a two-week strike, involving 85% of the employees at the major downtown hotels. The strike effectively shut down the city center for tourism and conventions. Within days after the strike began, the hotels in the MEG retaliated; corporate owners locked out over 4,000 striking workers and began to hire non-union replacements. Angry workers set up picket lines and the two sides squared off in what promised to be a serious dispute—given that San Francisco has the highest density of unionized hotel workers in the country.

When word got out about the lockout, hundreds of anthropologists refused to cross the picket lines, prompting the AAA board to belatedly change the meeting venue to a non-unionized Atlanta-based hotel; this hotel, also owned by Hilton, was chosen in a compromise intended to save the AAA from a lawsuit by the hotel chain. Some anthropologists cheered the move since it moved the convention out of San Francisco, but others viewed the trading of an organized hotel for a non-union facility as a sellout. Most of the scholars were inconvenienced and many lost travel funds. The problems led to a failed annual meeting and an unprecedented debate about the politics of labor within the organization. As 2004 secretary for the Society for the Anthropology of Work, I played a role in advocacy on behalf of labor among AAA members, and I draw on that experience in this paper, as well as on interviews with hotel workers and union organizers on the picket line in San Francisco, and reviews of the literature on service work, gender, and union organizing.
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