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Hyatt Hotels and the AAR/SBL: An Ethicist and a Biblical Scholar Walk Past A Boycott

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An ethicist, a Bible scholar, a theologian and a preacher walk into a hotel that is being boycotted at the request of its own workers. It's like the punch line of a bad joke. But it's not a joke, it could happen. And it's not funny, but serious.

It is so serious to the workers at the Hyatt hotels that today they made their longstanding national boycott a global one, taking the drastic step of asking people all around the world not to stay, meet or eat at the establishments that employ them. And it's also serious to the thousands of religious scholars who had planned to meet at a Hyatt hotel in Chicago this November for a joint meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.

This convention is the brain trust, and perhaps the soul trust, of the American religious world. It will bring thousands of university and seminary professors together to talk about the most pressing of life's questions. Divines from countless religions, trained in history, ethics and scripture, will share scholarly papers with one another. In a windy city with almost as many theologians per square foot as the Vatican, they will hold panel discussions in their fields and even interview for jobs. Many of those events were planned long ago to be held in the now boycotted Hyatt.

So what will happen at the convention when they arrive in Chicago and learn the lay of the land at the Hyatt? Can you imagine asking an ethicist to break a boycott in order to interview for a job? Can you imagine asking a religious historian to ignore the teachings of so many traditions that uphold the dignity of workers and their right to organize?

The unionized workers from the Hyatts couldn't imagine it, neither could their clergy allies, and neither could the many academics who had followed hotel employees' fight to win a fair contract over the years. One key issue is subcontracting good jobs out for low pay and no security - an issue which should have some meaning to faculty, be they adjunct or tenured, or like many people these days, somewhere in between.

In a very tight job market, there will be many aspiring religion teachers who are there to interview for a small number of jobs in a field - the academy - that is increasingly outsourcing its own work. Many of those in search of full time work may already be teaching as adjuncts, one course here and another there, for wages that could never support a single person, let alone a family. They long for a stable job with a fair salary. Underemployed and in debt after years of training, these PhDs know something about worker's rights and the struggle to gain them.

The Hyatt workers' complaints have Biblical themes: the exploitation of immigrants, the abuse of housekeepers, the callousness of the rich to the poor who serve, cook and clean for them. Last summer in Chicago, during a 100 degree heat wave, Hyatt management turned heat lamps on striking workers.

Last October, the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara invoked the ire of two sisters, Martha and Lorena Reyes, by posting demeaning pictures of housekeepers in bikinis on a bulletin board at work. "One day I came to work and saw men laughing at pictures on the wall. Someone had posted images of housekeepers' faces attached to the bodies of women wearing bikinis," says Martha Reyes. When they complained, the two sisters, with 30 years of experience between them, were fired. Said Reyes, "I was so embarrassed. For me this is no joke. I take my job very seriously, and all I ask is to be treated with respect. Instead, Hyatt fired me, and now I may lose my home."

"Keeping it Kosher," an editorial in the Jewish Daily last summer posed this question: "Is a hotel no longer to be considered kosher because of the way it treats its housekeepers? Is a restaurant or a factory treyf because of how it treats its workers?"

A clergy report on the Hyatt spelled out one answer from Jewish leaders: "We pledge to treat the Hyatt as lo kasher/not kosher for events and celebrations until it treats its workers with justice."

In recent years, interfaith efforts in Chicago and beyond have drawn attention to the housekeepers, bell men, wait staff and cooks at Hyatts around the country through the work of Interfaith Worker Justice. I recall one rambunctious interfaith service outside a Chicago Hyatt on a cold rainy November when I, and other Protestant pastors and Catholic priests, joined cantors and rabbis to call the hotel to conscience. Hoping that the matter would be resolved fairly and quickly, little could we imagine that the greatest minds of religion would be called upon to enter into this fray at a convention years later. But this is where the AAR and SBL now find themselves - in an ongoing redemption effort not yet completed.

The union workers took their concerns to the boards of the two august academic bodies and asked them to broker a just agreement so that the scholars would not have to choose between their studies and their ethics, in, of all places, a convention of religious scholars. A massive letter writing campaign to board members ensued, as scholars spoke out of their unique religious and ethical perspectives to call their two professional organizations to conscience.

Board members responded thoughtfully, engaging members of their own organizations, personally answering the onslaught of letters, and finally meeting as boards to discuss the ethical implications of their work and their gathering. The American Academy of Religion, and Society of Biblical Literature issued a statement that together they would alert their members to the problem, give them the opportunity to stay elsewhere, and move the daycare center and job interviews from the Hyatt. The AAR agreed to move its leaders and sessions out of the Hyatt. The SBL has not yet taken those steps but a serious conversation continues.

At a time when trust in religious organizations is at an all time low, it gives me hope that the professors who train the next generation of religious leaders are practicing what they preach. Twenty years ago, when I was a young student at Yale Divinity School preparing to be a minister, they were the ones who taught me about the cost of discipleship. They warned us that our faith and ethics would make life harder not easier.

There are all kinds of reasons to ignore a boycott, but most of them begin with a concern with the self. I do not want to be inconvenienced. I do not want to lose money. I do not want to put myself out in any way. My own lofty project matters more than the concerns of the housekeepers who make my beds.

Instead, these religious scholars are living with the inconvenience, the cost, and the understanding that it is not all about them. They will also, no doubt, have to live with those who criticize their position. Sounds like a pretty good metaphor for the life of faith to me.