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Worked up over labor disputes

Law professors nationwide are at odds over a labor dispute at a San Francisco hotel booked several years ago to host the 2011 meeting of the Association of American Law Schools.

Registration for the event is running ahead of the well-attended meeting in New Orleans last year, but some professors plan to honor a boycott requested by members of UNITE HERE Local 2 AFL-CIO, which represents about 12,000 hospitality workers of San Francisco and San Matteo, Calif.

The boycott includes the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, one of three hotels the association contracted with more than nine years ago for the four-day conference that opens Jan. 5.

“We don’t have a policy on this,” said James A. Gardner, a law professor and vice dean for academic affairs at University at Buffalo Law School. “It is up to the individual faculty members to decide what they’re going to do.”

He said anywhere from three or four to a dozen UB law professors go to the annual AALS meeting.

Lynn Mather, a professor of law and political science, is planning to attend, but said she will try to avoid crossing any picket lines.

“I’m sad it’s occurring,” she said. “It certainly complicates meeting attendance, but I don’t think it will seriously interfere with the meeting.”

Mather said she supports the union in its efforts, but worries the boycott could lead to a serious backlash because associations need to plan far in advance to set up large complex meetings.

“This is leading associations that would ordinarily be sympathetic to seek out large non-union hotels to book for their conferences,” she said. “If we want to support the workers’ cause and unions in the long run, moving to cities without significant union presence is counter to supporting workers’ rights, so I think the union in San Francisco has pushed too far here.”

Mather said the American Political Science Association was able to get out of its contract in San Francisco and has moved its September 2011 conference to Seattle, which she said has a large non-union presence.

A clause that would allow the AALS to back out of future contracts in the event of a labor boycott is an amendment being introduced by Gary Peller, law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the university’s representative to the AALS House of Representatives.

He said the resolution, if approved, would allow the association to cancel its contracts without penalty. Peller is also asking for a review of AALS officials, saying he has had many complaints that they have refused to respond to communications.

Peller is part of an ad hoc group of law teachers that is urging colleagues to boycott the Hilton.

“We plan on picketing the hotel and doing everything we can to make sure that people don’t go in or if they do, they note the political, moral or ethical stand that they’re taking by entering,” he said. “Many of us are embarrassed that our professional organization has so disrespected workers — not just by ignoring the picket line, but failing to respond to requests. Ignoring those that are lower than you in the class structure is ugly and disrespectful.”

The workers, according to their website,, are seeking affordable high-quality health care, increased wages, an improved pension plan, the right for workers at non-union properties to form a union and improved workload conditions.

According to the San Francisco Hotel News & Labor Updates,, the union is spreading false information. The site says San Francisco hotel workers are paid $29.61 an hour, including benefits, which it says is 6.8 percent higher than the national average of $27.73 an hour, and that hotel employees are being asked to share the responsibility of health care with single-digit percentage contributions.

AALS President-elect Michael A. Olivas said some scheduling changes have been made at considerable expense since the association learned of the boycott a couple of months ago. He said the contract includes two other smaller hotels across the street from the Hilton: The Parc 55 and the Hotel Nikko, neither of which are involved in the labor dispute.

Olivas said the other two hotels were primarily for sleeping arrangements, but that two-thirds of the conference programming has been moved to them from the Hilton.

“We have done our very best,” he said. “We tried to move as much as we could to the Nikko and the Parc 55, but you cannot shoe horn three hotels into two. We cannot move everything.

“A very small number of faculty who don’t historically attend this meeting have decided to empty the Hilton. They have taken it upon themselves to call, harass or hector other members, including speakers, and asked them to leave the Hilton. They’re representing themselves as AALS member when they’re not.”

Olivas said a number of events have to be at the Hilton with which the association has a long-standing contract. He said the other hotels do not have enough square footage to accommodate everybody.

“We have made our best efforts in a very short period of time,” Olivas said. “It is unrealistic and mean spirited on the part of a very few people to stampede everybody out of the Hilton by threats and misrepresentations. It is almost impossible to go to any city that doesn’t have some political conflict.”

As examples, he cited people objecting to booking a hotel in Washington, D.C. because it doesn’t have a representative in Congress. He said some don’t like California for its laws on same-sex marriage or Arizona for its immigration policies.

“Our organization has many viewpoints,” Olivas said. “We don’t have a doctrinal state in any of these, unless they go against our core values. There are people who object to almost any venue and they can chose not to participate.”

Olivas said pulling the plug on the Hilton would affect the association’s future ability to negotiate a contract with anyone.

“We have to go by the law of contract here,” he said. “We have fiduciary legal obligations. We are operating on behalf of the association, which is not a party to these two disputants. Some faculty are acting as agents to the union. We’re making the best decision we can in a very vexing situation that’s been made more difficult by faculty members who have injected themselves into this process and are using the easy access to e-mails to have a campaign to empty the Hilton.”

Martha T. McCluskey, another Buffalo law professor, said she has decided to cancel her participation, partially out of support for the workers.

“The AALS could have included a standard provision in its contract with the hotel to allow it to relocate in the event of a strike without substantial financial loss, as this is a situation that comes up every few years,” she said. “I am disappointed that the AALS has not been more proactive about this.”

McCluskey said while many conference sessions will be relocated so attendees can honor the picket, it is difficult for participants to make plans because much of the information about the scheduling remains uncertain. She said she was not certain whether a possible UB Law School reception was going to be moved or not.

“Despite the need for conference attendees and speakers to make their plane reservations, the AALS has failed, for the most part, to notify anyone whether their programs will be in the Hilton or not,” Peller said. “People consequently do not know whether to cancel or not.”