Labor supporters make progress with yoga community on hotel boycott

Pro-labor yogis stretch and demonstrate outside the Hyatt Regency yesterday.

While the Hyatt and Yoga Journal have tried to minimize the long labor dispute between hotel management and workers – which led to a national boycott of the Hyatt chain that the Yoga Journal has repeatedly refused to abide, this weekend holding a conference here at the Hyatt Regency – labor activists have finally made progress in the yoga community in recent days.

The group Yogis Uniting for Workers' Right held a high-profile yoga session on the sidewalk in front of the Hyatt yesterday “in a show of solidarity with the workers,” the group (led by local yogi Sean Feit) wrote on its Facebook site. “Because a living wage and health care are fundamental aspects of enlightenment, and because we believe that all the yoga in the world isn't worth a damn if people aren't taking action to make the world better.”

The hotel workers union Unite-Here Local 2 also met yesterday with one of the conference's highlighted yoga teachers, Seane Corn, and her group Off the Mat, Into the World. Afterward, Corn issued this statement: “After listening and learning I want to publicly acknowledge my ongoing support to the workers and believe fully in this boycott... I will not teach at the 2014 SF YJ Conference, or any other conference, if they're held at the Hyatt and the boycott is still in place."

Other yogis featured at the conference – such as Shiva Rae, who publicly said, “Their mistreatment of their employees is not in alignment with where we all stand” – have also made public statements of support for the workers and pledged to stay at other hotels, even while planning to teach at this year's conference as scheduled.

Unite-Here organizer Julia Wong told us she's pleased by the recent progress after years of frustration in trying to win the support of Yoga Journal and its larger community. “I think we're all incredibly happy with the amount of solidarity and interest we're seeing. This has been a longtime thorn in our side,” Wong said, noting that Yoga Journal has done conferences at the site throughout a boycott that is now more than three years old. “It's been amazing how many social justice yogis have gotten in touch with us and come out to show their support.”

Meanwhile, both the Hyatt and Yoga Journal continue to put out misleading information to justify their continuing relationship. One yogi who asked about the standoff received this as a reply from the Yoga Journal, based on information it received from Hyatt management: “I understand that this is a complicated issue but I want you to know a few things: The workers at the Hyatt are not on strike. The Hyatt corporate and Unite Here, the labor organization, have reached agreements on wages and benefits. There are issues remaining around voting rules, and because of this, Unite Here has reached out to organizations to urge them to change their plans and not hold an event at the Hyatt.

“We would not hold the conference here if there was a strike. But there is none. There are issues remaining around these voting rules, and yes, we all hope they get resolved, but this seems more like a bargaining chip than an issue that truly and deeply affects the workers. We all thought long and hard about this, and decided that in the end, we would honor our longstanding contract and commitments we've made to our presenters and attendees. The workers are not on strike. There is no picket line.”

While it's true that workers aren't on strike, Wong said they have been operating without a contract for three and a half years. And while the union hasn't maintained a continuous picket line (like the one that was there last night as the conference began), Wong said a boycott is the same thing: “The boycott is 24/7, we call on all customers to not sleep, eat, drink, or spend money there.”

Furthermore, she said there is not a signed agreement on wages and benefits, and to cast the standoff as around “voting rules” is ridiculous. She said there are three demands that the union has to end the national boycott of all Hyatt hotels: establish reasonable health and safety rules related to housekeeping, sign a new contract covering wages and benefits, and establish a fair process by which the union can organize workers and show solidarity with aggrieved workers in other cites.

While sources say it's true that wages and benefits aren't the major sticking point to negotiations here in San Francisco, the union has been trying to get on the same contract cycle as cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Honolulu in order to give the union more leverage to resist changes in work rules and health coverage that management has imposed in recent years.

Wong said the union isn't planning any more pickets of the Hyatt Regency this weekend (they'll be hitting the Grand Hyatt next week) – emphasizing that its target has always been hotel management and not its customers – and she's hopeful that they've finally made some progress with Yoga Journal's community this year: “We're going to see if we can get them to honor the boycott for next year.”

UPDATE: Guardian intern Jessica Wolfron covered yesterday's yoga protest and offers this report:

Yogis young and old took to their mats at a bustling Embarcadero intersection at rush hour last night,  posing in peaceful protest as yoga’s big-name celebrities crossed the picket lines into their plush Hyatt Regency rooms for the Yoga Journal Conference.

"Find your breath amongst the chaos " said San Francisco yoga teacher Dee Dussault, instructing her posse of pedestrian posers through a megaphone. “Find relaxation even in the noise all around you, find that peace and send it to all beings.”

While a downtown sidewalk may not be the most tranquil yogic sanctuary, Dussault, who teaches free yoga classes at Axis of Love, a community medicinal marijuana dispensary for low-income and marginalized people, was a striking contrast of calm against the storm of embittered protesters.

“Our demonstration was an invitation to the yoga practitioners at the conference this weekend to consider the implications of the practice when one is no longer on one's mat.” Dussault explains. As a self-proclaimed yogini and an activist, she believes that the two should not be considered separate and competing causes. Dussault wants people to realize that yoga is a living practice, and its social implications far extend the butt-boosting stretchy pants.

Whatever side of the fence we stand on, Dussault remind us that we should slow down, find our center, and just breathe.