Saturday, October 23, 2004

Response to Dr. William O Beeman’s email defending the AAA Board’s decision to move the AAA conference to Atlanta

Prof. Beeman, thank you for your quick response. No offense was intended to anyone, but we have different perspectives on what constitutes the moral thing to do (the word was used appropriately I argue). In fact, in my first email, I wrote; “Does the AAA-Hilton contract state that AAA is committed to uphold the contract despite the negative publicity to AAA and the respective participants personally from crossing the picket line? In other words, in signing the contract with Hilton, did it mean that the legitimacy of AAA as a “moral, ethical organization” should be disregarded? Why should AAA take the flakfor the collapse of Hilton’s labor-management relations?”

It is understandable that being in the AAA Board, your and the Board’s primary concern were the interests of the AAA and the participants to the conference. On this point you and the Board have done well and I have publicly acknowledged that in my first email last week.

However, the lockout of 4,000 minority, women, and immigrant workers living on strike pay with a bleak future (and a freezing one at that) and unaffordable insurance plans is no trivial matter. That the strikes and lockouts are spreading across the country shows that the conflict between hotel industry giants and labor is deep seated.

Principles should be consistent at all levels. The war on labor and collective rights is just as important as an unjust war. Afterall, the union and most of us are also against the war in Iraq.

Shifting the financial burden to participants (despite the planned financial assistance) rather than the organization is also a moral choice, which you and the Board decided on, and which we disagree with.

Before I wrote the previous email, I was wondering if all the emails that were going around were reaching the right people. The environmental and medical anthropology list serves, as well as the graduate listserves were filled with numerous suggestions and strategies for a “win-win” approach to the situation (including comments on the propriety of the survey/vote). My first two emails raised questions and suggestions similar to and pre-dated Rob O’brien’s comments. These were based on Tom Sheridan’s forward of the AAA Board’s request for comments and suggestions.

Why all these emails, including the offers from San Jose and the request of the Union to support their struggle and move to San Jose, did not presumably reach you and the Board should be explored.

Thus, as you and the Board are dismayed by our counter-actions, we who are against the move to Atlanta and the Board’s decisions were also surprised and dismayed to read about the process and timing of the Board’s decisions. As you know, the Board’s decision reflects on all anthropologists, especially those engaged in women, labor, health, human rights, public anthropology etc. studies.

I disagree that we move on and prepare for the next “battle”. Contrary to what the Board thinks, the move to Atlanta seriously compromises the integrity of the conference and the credibility of the organization. The fact that it is a non-unionized hotel during this time of hotel industry-labor conflict makes it even worse.

As I wrote, by force of circumstance and not of it’s making, the organization (and the conference) was placed in this moral dilemma. It should rise to the occasion. The AAA needed to tread carefully by ensuring that the consultative and decision-making processes are transparent and as participatory as possible.

The AAA indeed faced considerable time constraints, but all parties concerned understood that there were extraneous factors at work. The pressure most likely would have come from the Hilton, but the Board should have had more faith in the support that the anthropological community could have given it. Not doing so will only sow internal conflict not only with the organization but also in the wider anthropological community. A boycott and picket movement is being launched and already someone has emailed suggesting a class action suit against the AAA for the planned move to Atlanta.

The anthropological community needs to come together in this instance, but it needs to come together in support of minority, women, and immigrant labor rights. These are our friends, relatives, and countrymen. We should help them in their struggle for their rights.

Lastly, you may want to read the attached email from a MESA-graduate student complaining about the lack of transparency in the MESA Board regarding the same issue. Should you wish to read my previous emails, these have been posted at


Hecky Villanueva

Date: Sat, 23 Oct 2004 14:23:26 -0700 (PDT)From: Afra Al-Mussawir Subject: [GRADFORUM:2076] RE: mesa conference in nov in sfTo: newhall@u.arizona.eduCc: MESA , aaamessnl ,
mlowder@EMAIL.ARIZONA.EDU,, Gradforum ,,,,, self

Dear Dr. Newhall,

Thanks for your prompt response!I am dismayed that I had not heard anything about this situation fromMESA and would not have been aware of it except for my participation inAAA. Many student members of MESA were apparently equally in the darkabout this, and I’ve even heard from a professor who was not aware thatthe Hyatt Regency in SF is one of the hotels being struck, though hecares very much about this issue.

You mentioned in this email to methat “Members will be informed of the situation” but I do believe thatthis should be done in a timely manner ñ i.e. now! ñ to give peopletime to make their decisions about whether to attend (i.e. cross picketlines), to change their hotel plans (especially if they had intended tostay in one of the hotels being struck), or even “just” to discuss thesituation and the ethical questions involved. The sooner we makecancellations/ changes, the less we are personally liable for.

I fully appreciate the situation MESA finds itself in; as youmentioned, a lawsuit and huge financial penalties could destroy theorganization. I truly do not want that to happen as I think MESA hasplayed and will continue to play an important role ñ especially as wehave seen in recent times ñ in combating prejudice(s) within governmentand within the public (e.g. as regards federal funding and oversightissues) and in taking official positions on certain issues (e.g. therestriction of visas to the US for academics who are not citizens orpermanent residents of the US).

And yet, MESA also has an important role to play in thesecircumstances. I find that our “right to choose” (your own words!) asindividual members of MESA in this case has been compromised by MESAorganizers’ lack of forthrightness about the situation; we cannot”choose” if we do not know there is a “choice” to be made! I wouldheartily appreciate an official and public statement of disclosure fromMESA ís Board of Directors on their position and decisions, as well asthe reasons for those decisions and an explanation of thedecision-making process.

You and other MESA officials should be aware of measures that have beenrecommended to AAA to avoid getting caught in such a dilemma in thefuture, and MESA should consider adopting similar policies, including:

-to favor living wage municipalities and unionized hotels in choosing future meeting venues,-to seek a strike cancellation clause in future contracts with meeting hotels, and;
- to purchase cancellation insurance to cover future meetings.

To this list I would add:
-for MESA to make major decisions and decision-making processes (such as involved here) public to its members,
- to adopt some policy regarding collecting input from MESA members on such issues, and,
- to alter MESA’s no-show policy so as not to penalize those who boycott the annual meeting(s) for matters of principle such as this.I feel this last point is important.

While you state that individualshave the right to choose whether or not to attend this year’s annualmeeting, MESA’s policy states that a no-show on the part of a presenterwill be penalized by not being allowed to present in the followingyear’s meeting; if a proposed presenter at this year’s meeting decidesto boycott this year’s meeting at the Hyatt in San Francisco, wouldhe/she still be penalized as a no-show?

While I am well aware that MESA plans for and contracts for annualmeetings several years in advance (and so enacting these recommendedpolicies may not have real effect until years into the future), Ibelieve that consideration of and adoption of these measures wouldimprove the ethical position of our organization. At the very least,it will clarify MESA’s position to our members and to managers/ ownersof potential meeting sites.I hope to hear from you on these points, and I feel that a generaldiscussion ñ of both the long-term and the short-term issues ñ isdesirable right now.Eagerly awaiting your reply,


Afra Al-Mussawir
Graduate Student in Anthropology and The Americo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies
The University of Texas at Austin

cc: MESA-GSO listserve AAA listserve for students in the Anthropology of the Middle East (AAA MESSNL), Mark J. Lowder, MESA, (mlowder@EMAIL.ARIZONA.EDU)"MESA" ( graduate student listserve for Anthropology students Professor IanManners, Chair of UTís Department of Middle East Studies( Kamran Aghaie, UTís Department of Middle East Studies( Kamran Ali, UTís Department of Anthropology ( Sam Wilson, Chair of UTís Department of Anthropology(


Prof. William O. Beeman's reply

I am writing you as an individual, not representing the board, since no one else seems to be on line right now.

When the board made its decision on Thursday, none of the offers from the SJ convention and visitors bureau were on the table-I only heard of this $450,000 offer today, and I don't even know if it is a legitimate offer. Certainly we have not heard anything about it from AAA headquarters. To whom was the offer presented and under what circumstances? Moreover, the room arrangements for San Jose were due to expire on Monday--and we have heard nothing at all about an extension of that deadline. These last minute deals could possibly have made a difference on Thursday, but they are coming too, too late!

The AAA board was under tremendous time pressure to both satisfy the numerous individuals who refused to cross picket lines, and to be stewards of the AAA finances and of the integrity of the annual meeting. Taking a 1.2 million dollar hit was an option, of course, but such a drastic financial action could not responsibly be taken by the board without approval of the entire membership, and there just wasn't time to poll any more than we did. As it was, we took a very audacious financial step in moving to Atlanta. We moved forward with the Atlanta plans with real trepidation because of the financial burdens it would impose on our least wealthy members. The board has moved to set up a special fund for graduate students, foreign visitors and I believe adjunct faculty to offset the costs of moving. I will be the first to contribute.

Added to this was the logistical dilemmas and the additional costs imposed by the San Jose venue, which would require the meetings to be spread over five properties--meeting rooms revised, the whole program reprinted, etc. The AAA staff was reeling at the prospect. Having organized several large meetings, I can tell you that this is not a trivial affair. Just the need for thousands of rooms alone restricts the venues we can consider. The Atlanta venue relocates the meeting to a single property, just like San Francisco, and is scheduled for the same days of the week, just like San Francisco. If we had an army of volunteers to aid the AAA staff, that might have also made a difference in the Atlanta decision, but again--no time to see if it was possible.

Finally, you should all know that the union in San Francisco was satisfied--even pleased by our action, and that no matter where we went or what we did, we would have to use the facilities of the hotel chains that were locking out the hotel workers. We would have had to use Hilton property in San Jose as well, along with the properties of all the other big chains participating in the lockout. No moral victory there!

I seriously suggest that everyone channel their energy into fighting the next battle. You can bet that we will be discussing these plans most earnestly at the meetings. This struggle will not go away. We will now face it every year. Robert O'Brien made some excellent suggestions for policy changes that will protect our organization and our integrity, including revising our meeting schedule (planned a decade in advance!) to reflect corporate labor policy. This strike could not have been foreseen when the original contract with Hilton was signed.

I am living in San Jose this year. I love the city, ink it is a fabulous place for a convention with lots to do, great restaurants and easy access. It also has some very enlightened civic policies. I suggested it as an alternative venue immediately, but the problems in moving here were just insurmountable.

Finally, please be careful with the word "immoral." Once you use it inappropriately against your colleagues who are doing nothing more than trying desperately to act in the best interests of all, it loses its force for things that are truly immoral, like the war in Iraq.

William O. Beeman
Professor, Anthropology; and Theatre, Speech and Dance
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
Tel: (401) 863-3251
(2004-2005 Visiting Professor, Cultural and Social Anthropology,
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305)

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