NCA Executive Director engages in union-bashing

A UNITE-HERE! organizer has been sending award-winning and other distinguished scholars in the NCA letters asking them to honor the boycott, not only because of the involvement of Manchester in funding an anti-gay ballot initiative, but also because the union has established relationships with the hyper-exploited workers at the hotel. Bringing the two causes together is a principled act and one that is fairly unprecedented in the US labor scene.

However, according to a credible source, NCA Executive Director Roger Smitter has been writing these same distinguished scholars, using the following language:

“We regret that you have been targeted by Unite Here! to receive its appeal to boycott the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the site of the NCA convention and the 2008 Awards ceremony. Unite Here! has been sending essentially the same message to persons who names have appeared on our website. This includes the not only you but also publishers who will be exhibiting at the 2008 convention and leaders in our governance.

In brief, Unite Here! is using a California ballot initiative to ban gay marriage as a wedge to advance its own agenda with the Hyatt Hotel. Doug Manchester, one of the owners of the hotel, contributed money to the ballot initiative. “

It is very strange that contacting NCA members, leaders, and affiliated publishers seems in this passage to be somehow inappropriate or malign. We are communication scholars. Really.

The main thing, though, is that this passage is an ugly bit of union-busting rhetoric. It represents UNITE-HERE’s efforts as “targeting” scholars (and not in the good way that we rhetoricians sometimes refer to as “the target audience”). On this analysis, any attempt to persuade distinguished scholars in the field would be aggressive and inappropriate. The main charge, that UNITE-HERE is “using” the gay rights issue to promote its agenda, is typical of anti-union discourse in the history of the US labor movement: Portray the labor movement as opportunistic outsiders taking advantage of workers, their allies, and the public at large.

One could just as easily say that the workers are using the lgbtq issue to establish ties to the union, or that the gay rights coalition is using the union to advance its agenda—the point being, these are causes in solidarity, not a matter of various interests using each other.

I urge my colleagues not to dismiss the joint glbtq/labor coalition’s boycott based on Mr. Smitter’s opportunistic, anti-union discourse. He is using UNITE-HERE as a scapegoat—much as effective movement organizers throughout history have been targeted for abuse–to deflect attention to the real issue at hand: whether to stand against bigotry and exploitation, or not.

From a colleague on the blogora

I’ve never posted to this blog before, but I truly am surprised at the discussion here so far.

Smitter’s letter is so problematic, it makes me sad. What’s the “wedge” and what’s the “agenda”? The ambiguity here is vital to his allegations. In addition, how can anyone claim that labor has nothing to do with the ballot initiative? As activists, we need only listen to the grassroots movement in San Diego that has build a coalition to include workers resisting exploitation, GLBT activists standing up against the funding of hate, and women fighting sexual discrimination. As academics, we need only read Judith Butler’s classic essay, “Merely Cultural” or dust off our Engels for anything he wrote about the family/gender.

As someone who was on food stamps in elementary school for a period of time because my father was on a strike, I’ve never crossed a picket line in my life. Saying “the show must go on” is not enough. There are a lot of actions people seem to be leaving out of this discussion:
* there is no excuse for a department to host a party that requires anyone to cross a picket line.
* there is no excuse for potential employers not to do interviews elsewhere.
* the grad student open house should be canceled or moved.
* the awards ceremony can and should be moved.
* people can stay elsewhere.
* asking for answers for vague union-baiting claims about “wedge” issues is the least rhetoric/communication scholars can do.
* NCA, Inc., needs to publicly affirm that it will make space to discuss how NCA members can have more of a voice about future venue choices.
* and I’m sure others have more ideas…

Phaedra Pezzullo, Associate Professor, Indiana University, Bloomington

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