Should the OAH Consider Moving Its 2005 Convention to San Jose on Account of Labor Problems in San Francisco?


Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

HNN NEWS FLASH 2-15-05: The OAH executive board has decided to move the 2005 annual meeting from San Francisco to San Jose in response to the ongoing union boycott of the Hilton Hotel, where the meeting was originally scheduled. A poll of some 900 people who registered for the meeting indicated that 3/4ths would refuse to cross a picket line. The move to San Jose could cost the OAH $450,000. But going ahead with the meeting in San Francisco also entailed costs of up to half a million dollars from unrented rooms already reserved and the loss of registration fees.

Note: The comments posted on this page were received before the OAH made its announcement.

On January 29, 2005 the Organization of American Historians (OAH) announced that it is making emergency plans to possibly relocate the 2005 convention from San Francisco to San Jose in the event a hotel union dispute isn't settled by the time of the meeting. The OAH reports:"OAH has a policy of union preference in negotiating hotel and service contracts for its annual meetings. We look forward to a resolution of differences between the union and hotel in San Francisco."

HNN invited several OAH members to comment on the organization's announcement.

David Brody

Mr. Brody, a labor historian, is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Davis.

The OAH should move the convention to San Jose if the union boycott of the San Francisco Hilton remains in effect. Yes, it's inconvenient and will cost the OAH, but there are times when we have to put our money where our mouths are. Many of us don't cross picket lines or ignore boycotts because we believe that unions are good for working people and deserve all the support they can get. If a majority of OAH members don't feel that way, of course, then we should do like the national association of realtors or plumbing suppliers do and go ahead with the convention.

Nobody, even pro-labor folks, likes going into things blindly, especially when it's a pain in the ass, as going to San Jose will be, so let me try to explain to out-of-towners what's at issue in the S.F. dispute. The sticking point is the length of the new contract. If you don't think that's such a big deal, think again. Almost by definition, unions operate under a huge disadvantage to management because they lack the flexibility and speed of capital. If companies want to merge, or close product lines, or subcontract overseas, they just do it. Unions can't operate that way. They're constantly behind the curve and constantly struggling to catch up. That's what's going on in the S.F. hotel dispute. The industry's bargaining pattern today goes back to the days when hotels were locally owned and operated in local markets. HERE-UNITE (the hotel union) is trying to align its local contracts to a common expiration date so that it can bargain nationally with conglomerates like Hilton. They want to level the playing field a bit (which of course is the reason the hotels are fighting so hard). Contract expiration dates might seem a technical issue, but they're really the key to better labor standards in the entire hotel industry. The hotel maids and clerks understand this. Historians should understand it also.

Alonzo Hamby

Mr. Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University, is the author of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s (New York: Free Press, January, 2004).

I was astounded by the OAH announcement. The OAH poses the possibility of moving the convention to San Jose, then urges its membership to go ahead and send in their registration money without knowing where the convention is going to be held--or for that matter just where attendees might be staying. This strikes me as irresponsible.

Using the OAH web site e-mail utility (not easy to find), I sent an e-mail to "oah.org" with the salutation to Lee Formwalt, asking for clarification as to whether the contingency planning for San Jose was being done against the possibility that the Hilton San Franciso would not be available, or whether it would be executed, regardless of availability, if the hotel did not reach an agreement with the union. Naturally, I do not have a response yet, and he deserves some time to make one. I am uneasy, however, with another sentence in the OAH statement that says it is OAH policy to give preferment to union facilities.

I have no opinion on the merits of the San Francisco labor dispute. I think people are free to give their support as individuals to the union, or for that matter to management. But I also think the OAH exists to promote the study of history and advance the interests of its members. One of the ways in which it does this is by holding a well-planned, accessible annual convention with scholarly panels, an exhibition hall, and functioning employment services. These are all functions of paramount importance to its members.

What I am afraid of is that we seem to be headed toward a repetition of the fiasco in St. Louis just a few years ago. I hope that won't happen. I don't think the organization can endure disruption of that sort every few years.

I might add that I am a life member who joined the OAH about 42 years ago.

Jesse Lemisch

Mr. Lemisch is the author of many books including, On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession.

I am certainly aware of disputes going back many years around the question of the political neutrality of professional associations. I respect those who would not want a political view imposed on them by an association of which they are members. But I am also old enough to recall the long and important struggle against historical associations meeting in racially segregated sites -- and the shameful resistance to these struggles in the associations, often under the banner of "neutrality." (And I also fought successfully to keep AHA Committees from meeting at the Century Club here in New York City at a time when women could not be members). The outcome of such struggles was the conclusion that it was simply unacceptable to meet in such conditions. Further, to accept such conditions and to meet in such places was far from neutral, but rather an acceptance of bigotry. From this emerges, I think, a general idea that we can't claim ignorance (or agnosticism) about the policies of the hotels in which we meet.

Gil Troy

Mr. Troy is Professor of History, McGill University, and the author of the new book, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of HNN's advisory board.

Truth is, I'm agnostic on the issue.

My frustrations with OAH run so much deeper, and have so much more to do with the failure of the organization to tackle serious issues facing the historical profession, that I simply can't get passionate one way or another [about the question HNN raised]. I guess it is, however, typical of OAH to focus on a labor dispute in which we don't really know the issues that well, relying instead on the instinctive 1930s paradigm of big-bad-business and heroic labor, which may be true in this case, or may not be. (What do I know? I clearly learned the wrong lessons from my advisers in graduate school. I usually wait for the evidence before jumping to conclusions, and I usually assume things are more complex than the black and white sloganeering we seemed to be addicted to....)

When the OAH cleans up its act, maybe I'll get exercised about this issue, one way or another. Meanwhile, I wish my esteemed colleagues were focusing on the serious problems of overproduction of PhDs with so few jobs out there, on the overly politicized and trend-obsessed hiring process, of the staggeringly irrelevant concerns and research topics of so many historians, of the subpar teaching that festers on too many campuses because most of us (myself included) are responding to the emphasis on research not teaching in our profession, of the insanity whereby academics who are supposed to be open-minded and committed to rational thought get pigheaded and exceedingly personal about methodology as well as politics, and of the narrow-mindedness and bullying that goes on in too many classrooms, seminar rooms, and conferences, from the left and the right.

The OAH approach to these kinds of problems is exemplified by the absurd, even Orwellian "OAH Committee on Academic Freedom" which in its mandate published in the OAH newsletter recently only identified examples of intimidation or possible repression from the government or the right, while ignoring the complaints of leftist intimidation and blackballing. Wouldn't even a smart strategy, let alone questions of fairness and equity, suggest targeting even one minor sin from the left to create even the appearance of objectivity?

But no, why bother addressing these issues. Instead, let's continue in the vein that Todd Gitlin satirized so aptly in his book, The Twilight of Common Dreams, when he described academics "Marching on the English Department while the Right Took the White House."

Melvyn Dubofsky

Mr. Dubofsky is Bartle Distinguished Professor of History & Sociology at SUNY Binghamton.

The labor dispute in San Francisco between members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (UNITE/HERE) and the city's major hotels presents a dilemma for the OAH and for its individual members. In theory, the OAH, as an institution composed of a diverse membership whose beliefs, preferences, and practices range widely across the political, ideological, and religious spectrum, should decline to participate directly in conflicts that do not involve the promotion of history as a discipline and a social good. In practice, however, many individual members of the OAH, especially faculty and graduate students at public universities, are also members of trade unions whose fundamental principles of worker solidarity require their members to honor picket lines and boycotts authorized by other unions. Such OAH members would be morally obligated to refuse to book rooms or to attend proceedings in any hotel, such as the Hilton in San Francisco, the object of a union "do-not-patronize" campaign. Other non-union OAH members may share such sentiments and act upon them. Still other members, however, might be principled opponents of unions, collective bargaining, strikes, and especially boycotts. In an ideal world, I would love to leave it at that, the OAH, as an institution, advising all its members of the facts of the matter, and individual members then deciding for themselves how to act. I suspect that the outcome would be an aborted or rump meeting, with substantial numbers cancelling their reservations or declining to make them, including many panelists.

But we are not now dealing with theoretical situations or ideal forms of behavior. For years, the OAH and the AHA have scheduled annual meetings in non-union cities with few or no unionized hotels, and, for that matter, in union cities but non-union hotels. In the year 2000, however, the OAH cancelled its contract with the Adams Mark Hotel in St. Louis owing to an on-going civil rights dispute among the hotel chain, the NAACP, and the Department of Justice. At the time I was overseas in Amsterdam and followed the controversy from a distance. After reading the legal briefs prepared by plaintiffs and defendants and learning that the St. Louis hotel in question was non-union, I wrote to the OAH in opposition to their decision to break a contract in deference to a yet unproved civil rights claim but to have scheduled their meeting in a hotel that refused to recognize or to bargain with a trade union. In that letter, I noted that the vast majority of hotel employees were "people of color," many of whom represented the new wave of immigration, and that union membership, collective bargaining, and the material and psychic fruits that they bring, would do more to benefit poorly-paid, hard-working people than a symbolic defense of the "civil rights" of a smaller number of individuals who had already tasted many of the material goods that money can buy. It seems that today citizens have more human and legal rights in the United States as members of one of several enumerated disadvantaged groups than as citizen workers. If the leadership and membership of the OAH really believe that it is the function and mission of a professional historical society to promote and to protect the interests of the least among us, then it is incumbent upon them to support the struggle of San Francisco's hotel workers, a cause that in my estimation is both nobler and more conducive to the creation of a good society than the OAH's action in St. Louis five years ago. Moreover, since such an act, that is a breach of contract, likely would produce a severe financial penalty for the OAH, its officers and members (that is, those supportive of a contract cancellation) should be willing to put their money where their mouths are.

Michael Honey

Mr. Honey is Professor of African-American, Ethnic and Labor Studies and American History, at the University of Washington, Tacoma and Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies Emeritus, University of Washington.

We will all be disappointed if the OAH has to move from San Francisco to San Jose. But we should realize that the hotel dispute is no small matter. Employers and government together have smashed unions into a fraction of their former size. The result has been a steep decline of working-class living standards, health coverage, and funding and access to higher education. Union decline is one reason the country has moved so far to the right. Exit polls showed white males in unions voting decidedly against the President Bush, while non-union white males voted strongly in favor of him.   Until the organized power of ordinary people begins to be felt, we will continue in our current downward spiral at all levels. Immigrants, women and workers of color are now in the forefront of unionizing in the hotels, and unions in the service industry. They are trying to establish national union contracts that expire at the same time, to make it possible to organize the industry as a whole. We should support them. It is too much to ask any of us to cross a picket line, but more than that, we should be glad that these workers are acting in solidarity, for it is in our interests as well as theirs that they succeed.

Jim Green

Mr. Green is President of the Labor & Working Class History Association (lawcha.org) and Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Boston.

On January 25, 2005 I wrote to James Horton, President of the Organization of American Historians (in my role as President of the Labor and Working Class History Association) to express my opinion, one I believe all 400 LAWHCA members share, that the OAH leadership should make plans to move the upcoming San Francisco meetings out of the Hilton Hotel to an alternative location in the area.

The workers’ cause is just; they are fighting, among other things, for hard-won health care benefits the hotels want to cut back. (The hotels want to increase employees’ co-payments ten fold.) They have survived an effort by fourteen large hotels to lock them out and force them back to work under adverse conditions . Since then, the union workers have won the support of many community groups as well as elected officials in the city and the state; they have gained the support of several professional associations who moved their meetings out of the affected hotels; they also deserve our support.

We will soon learn what the OAH survey of its members reveals as to their position on the boycott; I expect they will be strongly in favor of honoring the boycott and the recently-established picket line. And we will see what the OAH Executive Board decides to do in response to the situation in San Francisco; I trust the board and officers will decide to move the meeting, even though it may result in serious financial penalties assessed by the Hilton against the OAH.

I realize that, if this decision is taken, some OAH members will be inconvenienced and, in some cases, angered by such a decision to honor the boycott, because it may seem to them that the Organization is taking a costly political position in favor of the union. However, in these terms, the alternative of holding the convention at the Hilton is equally political. If the OAH board voted to ignore the workers’ boycott, the Organization would be honoring a legal commitment to a corporation but dishonoring a moral and philosophical position many OAH members hold dear—that we, as U.S. historians with a public and professional mission must take sides in important struggles for social justice. In any case, the convention would be a disaster if held at the Hilton. Many, if not most, of the participants would refuse to cross a picket line in order to attend, and more: they would be alienated from the Organization and its leadership as a result.

The Organization made the right decision in 2000 when a similar situation arose: that was to honor an NAACP boycott against the Adams Mark Hotel. We survived the crisis in St. Louis and became a stronger organization in the process. So, we in the OAH have some history with these kinds of disputes-- a history of standing up for justice and fairness in the hotel industry, whether it involves the treatment of guests or of unionized employees.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 2/16/2005

Professor Fahey, This seems to me to be a very constructive suggestion. You might send it directly to Lee Formwalt at the OAH. Goodness knows, he's had enough experience by now with this kind of problem and I suspect that he'd be interested in any suggestions that might spare the OAH these stresses and financial losses in the future. You can get Lee's e-mail address readily enough at the OAH website.

Andrew Jefferson Davidson - 2/16/2005

I realize that Susan Reverby, like most of the membership of the OAH, truly does wish to stand in solidarity with the union in question, HERE-UNITE, and feels it immoral to cross a picket line.

I seems to me, however, that moving the convention thirty miles away is not actually a great deal of help to the union so much as all of us just posturing for the press and patting ourselves on the back before going on with our scheduled, albeit rearranged, plans.

Yesterday I sarcastically (and rather meanly, for which I apologize) pondered how much I should donate to the OAH, which asked me and the other members to consider making a donation to the Organization after the Executive Council decided to pull the meeting from San Francisco at this late date—causing, as mentioned, many problems for the membership as well as the publishers who paid a great deal of money to exhibit at the Hilton.

Dr. Reverby says she admires the courage of the council, especially after the debacle in St. Louis, yet I admire their courage (perhaps Chutzpah is more accurate) of asking us to give more money to them rather than making a donation directly to the membership of HERE-UNITE, the welfare of which they purport to care deeply about.

Indeed, since they have already lessened greatly the magnitude of the meeting by moving it, why not show some real courage and cancel the annual meeting this year, with all of us, we publishers included, forgoing our monies paid in so far and agreeing to donate to HERE-UNITE the estimated cost of attending the meeting were it held in San Jose?

Instead of crowing about “putting our money where are mouths are,” why not put our money where it might do some good?

Andrew J. Davidson
Publisher & Vice President
Harlan Davidson, Inc.

David M Fahey - 2/16/2005

Can't the OAH put a clause in hotel contracts that voids them in the case of a strike or a boycott? At least for the organization, this would avoid the financial cost of making a moral decision.

David M Fahey - 2/16/2005

The decision of the OAH to move its 2005 convention is relatively uncomplicated, a decision by an organization for a high visibility one-time event. The more complex question, it seems to me, is what historians and others should do on their campuses and in their communities. San Francisco hotel workers are not the only Americans with low wages and marginal benefits. We all have heard about the strikes at Yale. The strike at my own campus in southwestern Ohio got little attention from the media. The deindustrialization of the Rust Belt states underlies the story. Outside the public sector there are few mediocare blue collar jobs here, let alone good ones. The strikers at my campus, nearly all white, rural and politically conservative, eventually had to accept the administration's contract because alternative jobs at the places where faculty members shop and eat, pay even lower wages and offer much lower benefits. In other words, historians don't have to look to a hotel in California when they think about their social responsibilities.

Colin Gordon - 2/15/2005

I take issue with Professor Troy's conviction that it is
"typical of OAH to focus on a labor dispute in which we don't really know the issues that well, relying instead on the instinctive 1930s paradigm of big-bad-business and heroic labor, which may be true in this case, or may not be" -- a position echoed by Professor Hamby's claim to have "no opinion on the merits of the San Francisco labor dispute."

In fact, anyone who has bothered to look -- including our colleagues at the OAH -- are quite familiar with the the issues, and the relevant merits of either side. The union (HERE-UNITE)proposal includes a modest increase in the hourly wage, stable health benefits, and a contract expiration date in 2006 that will allow peak bargaining between HERE and the major chains in a number of cities. The multi-employer group (management of 14 SF hotels)chose to lock out the union and threaten draconian cuts in health benefits rather than agree to such an interim contract.

The management stance has been widely condemned in the SF Press (even on the business pages) and by the City itself -- which has pulled all City business from the hotels in question.

Susan M Reverby - 2/15/2005

This is going to be very difficult for everyone. I just tried to figure out the planes (having already booked to San Francisco) and it is not easy. I also feel very badly for the publishers. However, we didn't have much of a choice here. Many of us will not/cannot cross a picket line yet do not want the convention canceled. The Anthropologists moved theirs across the country and hardly anyone came. I applaud the decision of the executive committee which must have been a nightmare given St. Louis. But no one ever said solidarity was easy. Susan Reverby

Susan M Reverby - 2/15/2005

HNN - 2/15/2005

Not an easy decision but I concur. John Piper

Andrew Jefferson Davidson - 2/15/2005

A few years back, when you decided almost immediately before the annual meeting in St. Louis that you could not in good conscience have our memebership stay at the Adams Mark Hotel--not the first or only hotel ever to have practiced discrimination--the Hyatt and Hilton chains come to mind immediately--you canceled your contract, let the Adams Mark rerent the rooms we had reserved (they made out pretty well on the deal) and moved the book exhibit miles down the street to a gym on the campus of St. Louis University. I am not only a member of the OAH but the publisher at Harlan Davidson, Inc. As I recall, I had reserved a space ad in cover II of the meeting program as well as two booths, which, as you well know, cost me a great deal of money.

In short, the book exhibit was a fiasco, the buses running to and fro some four or five different hotels were a pain in the neck and few people visited the exhibit more than once, if at all. Neither I nor any of the other exhibitors were offered so much as an apology--believe me, the word "refund" never was mentioned, even though we hand not been delivered what we had purchased. The crowning blow was a speedy request that I donate money to the OAH in order to help cover the expense of its hollow victory. (BTW, your little dance of a press conference was a joke.)

Well, gosh, I'm no historian, but do I sense a pattern over time here?

Once again I have reserved and already paid for a cover II program ad, two booths, airfare to and from San Francisco, rental on all the furniture and drappings for the booths--a cost of well over $7,000--only to find that, in the words of Neil Young, I paid for this and you give me that. I expect a very poor attendance at any exhibit in San Jose, which will cost me in all sorts of ways and cheat my company and my authors out of the exposure we expected to get at the OAH.

Recently I rec'd an email asking if I might consider giving a gift to help defray the costs of this eleventh-hour move. The only trouble is, I simply cannot decide on the appropriate amount. What do you suggest?

Andrew J. Davidson

James R. Barrett - 2/14/2005

A lot of support from the Uiversity of Illinois at Urbana for moving the 2000 St. Louis convention from Adam's Mark came after a long, detailed discussion/debate among faculty and grad students, including at least one member of the OAH executive committee. There was a genuine concern that a professional organization that we supported take a principled position on an important issue regarding social justice. There was no reflex involved, and I believe there was a real appreciation for the inconvenience to colleagues and the liabilities for the organization. Many of us supported the change in 2000 for the same reason that we support this change -- because we do care about the OAH and want it to represent the profession in a manner we consider socially responsible. The 2000 convention was the best I had ever attended in several respects, despite some inconveniences. My material support and interest in the OAH went up. I identified much more closely with the organization after it made the decision to move, and I continue to support it today. I urge my colleagues to support this move.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/14/2005

David --
You have a key and easy to overlook sentence in your comment that explains why many of us would never want to get rid of conferences: "Technology makes it unnecessary to meet in the same room to present/hear papers, nominally the purpose of academic conferences." Of course the word "nominally" is crucially important. Historians are engaged in a field driven by human interaction. A major part of conferences is human interaction. It is possible to have a very productive conference without ever attending apnels, but by meeting folks at book exhibits, touching base with friends and colleagues and making new ones over drinks or dinner. Perhaps one could accomplish the nominal purpose of a conference by sitting in front of a computer. Since when should we settle for nominal?


HNN - 2/14/2005

The first thing we should be clear about is that deciding how to respond to the hotel boycott has little to do with the issues raised by Prof.
Troy. Even if one accepts all of his somewhat tendentious enumeration of these problems (as I do not), the issue at hand remains whether to hold a meeting under circumstances which will cause a considerable portion of the membership to stay away for reasons of conscience. As to Prof.
Hamby's reference to St. Louis, no one I know thinks of that meeting as a "disaster." To the contrary, most people on the program and in attendance seemed to think the organization did a remarkable job of mounting the convention at St. Louis University; things ran quite smoothly. Many of us, by the way, will be mildly disappointed not be in SF, but will be happy to learn the way to (and from) San Jose. Finally, on the central issue of the respponsibility of historians to make a stand for justice as most of us see it, there are a few things to be said. Some members do not believe that professional organizations should lend support to political causes of any kind; others simply do not believe that unions promote justice. Members have expressed similar views over the years about OAH stands on civil rights, women's rights, and other matters. We will have to keep arguing about these things, but as long as most of us do in fact believe that unions promote justice, and as long as changing our plans involves only modest inconvenience, a decision to switch to San Jose seems justifiable and justified.

Michael Green - 2/14/2005

I yield to no one in my support for unions. At the same time, I do not know the exact details of the dispute in San Francisco, and therefore want to refrain from reaching conclusions. A couple of points, however:

1. Reflexively support unions is no better than reflexively supporting business.

2. I wondered, upon hearing the news, whether the OAH realized that moving from San Francisco to San Jose isn't exactly the same as moving from, say New York City to Long Island.

michael ---- wreszin - 2/14/2005

Certainly the OAH should not expect its members to cross a picket line in a labor despute-especially in a despute involving the poorly paid hotel workers. That would seem to me to be pretty obvious. Maintaining a stance of "neutrality" at a time when the union movement is in crisis seems hardly neutral or non-ideological.

David M Fahey - 2/14/2005

Apology for the typos.

David M Fahey - 2/14/2005

As a non-member who has no intention of attending the proposed OAH convention in either California city, may I offer a suggestion? hold no convention at all, this year and any year. Technology makes it unnecessary to meet in the same room to present/hear papers, nominally the purpose of academic conferences. Some of the other functions of academic conferences can also be performed without the expense of airline tickets, hotel bills, and the like. I would retain small conferences, that is, for specialized or regional organizations, but get rid of the ones at which its hard to find a place on an elevator. Attend only those meetings where the is a sense of common purpose, of community. Last May I attended a specialist conference in Canada, and next April I'll attend the annual meeting of the older OAH (the Ohio Academy of History which has kept the same name and initials since it was founded during the Great Depression by historians who couldn't afford to travel out of state). Is it necessary for academic morale (or networking) to attend a conference in the company of thousands of others in a city with expensive restaurants and other tourist attractions?

Melissa Nicole Stuckey - 2/14/2005

The conference needs to be moved. Those looking for information as to why can refer to the following websites http://www.PetitionOnline.com/geso2005/petition.html and

John Reed Tarver - 2/14/2005

This is St. Louis all over again. OAH staff has again made arrangements for a convention without providing an alternative site in the case of problems. Who writes/approves of these contracts? Get rid of him/her!