Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On the Hyatt Boycott and the Ethics of "Spiritually" Driven Businesses

There was a lot of commentary over the past few weeks about the yoga conference held at the Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco last week. The main reason for this is the longstanding boycott on Hyatt and Yoga Journal's repeated decisions to keep their conference at Hyatt despite that boycott. One of the editor's of the new yoga volume 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, Roseanne Harvey, has been offering frequent posts about the situation. Another member of the 21st Century Yoga team, Chelsea Roff, just offered her own take on the issue. While Roseanne's pieces are clearly siding with the hotel workers and boycott, Chelsea's post attempts to offer journalistic objectivity. Given that I am also a part of the 21st Century yoga team, and have already written about the Hyatt Boycott and it's relation to the yoga community, I'd like to respond to a few comments and questions in Chelsea's piece.

One of the reason's Yoga Journal cites for not moving the conference away from the Hyatt is their contract with them.

Yoga Journal has a multi-year contract with the Hyatt that isn’t set to end until 2015. If the company chooses to pull out of their contract with the Hyatt next year, it would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars — and in a conference industry that’s already struggling to stay afloat, that could mean no more conferences for Yoga Journal. “There would be a significant penalty to break the contract,” Maggal told me. “And it would severely impact our ability to continue holding conferences in the future.”

Of course, money is a major player here. Does that surprise anyone? Certainly, hundreds of thousands of dollars sounds like a lot. Indeed, I can even see where, in the difficult market magazines have to deal with these days, that kind of money might be "make or break" on the whole business kind of money.

However, let's consider Yoga Journal's particular situation. As of September 2006, YJ has operated as a subsidiary of Active Interest Media, holders of over 75 print magazines, and financed by "a private-equity investment firm with over $1.8 billion in capital under management." As such, while a several hundred thousand dollar penalty isn't pretty, it really can't be upheld as the death knell to future conferences it's being portrayed to be.

Another issue with this dramatic claim being made by YJ is that they have three other successful conferences annually, in addition to the one in San Francisco. Is Yoga Journal suggesting that paying the financial penalty to move from the Hyatt would "severely impact" all of their conferences, or is this mostly a reference to the San Francisco conference? What I find most interesting is that San Francisco is home turf for YJ. You'd think a successful media company would have more options in their home town, where the personal ties and connections tend to be greater. They paint the Hyatt as being the only suitable option.
When they looked into possible alternatives, they found no facilities in the area that could accommodate their size on the date the conference was scheduled.
This in a city of over 800,000 residents. Hmmm...

In my opinion, this is more about comfort and class than about location and financial penalties. The Hyatt appeals to the upper middle class sentiment that drives the North American yoga machine. It's a comfortable fit that doesn't offend the privileged people who attend their conferences. In fact, given their familiarity with the management of the hotel, I'm guessing that the Hyatt SF caters to that privileged sensibility, making sure that everyone on staff keeps the moneyed yogis feeling pampered and fully taken care of in every possible manner.

Towards the end of her article, Chelsea poses the following questions.

Should a company be expected to defend the rights of people in its community? And what is Yoga Journal’s community? Is it limited to the consumers who buy its magazine and attend its conferences, or does the Yoga Journal extend to the American populace in general, which includes workers at the Hyatt?

Personally, the answer to the first question is always yes, regardless of the business. As far as I'm concerned, a company that places profits over the well-being of humans and the planet is a worthless entity. Something lacking ethics, and out of accord with life itself. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I have little tolerance for capitalism in general, but it's especially the case when it comes to issues like human exploitation and planetary destruction.

Beyond that, though, it seems to me that companies like Yoga Journal, built supposedly on a mission to spread the teachings of a spiritual practice, have a duty to uphold the values they're preaching. Such as ahimsa: non-harming. Or asteya: non-stealing.

Clearly, upholding these doesn't lead to an unchanging set of answers and responses. It wouldn't mean that the response to any labor unrest is always to move and support the workers. But if the history of labor-management/owner relations under capitalism is any guide, the lion's share of the time, the grievances of the workers are not only true, but only the tip of the iceberg.

Along those lines, amongst the numerous anti-union statements made by Hyatt officials during Roff's article is this telling gem by David Lewin, general manager of Hyatt SF:

Boycotting this hotel doesn’t make any sense – why should my workers suffer? They haven’t received a raise in over three years, all because the union wants to increase their headcount. They’re holding their own workers hostage. In my opinion, it’s just pathetic. Disgusting and pathetic.

Annual revenues for Hyatt Hotels Corp are over $3.5 billion. Hyatt has a practice of subcontracting housekeepers, and also maintaining a mostly part-time staff amongst those they do hire. There's even a federal trial underway in Baltimore that points to both illegal anti-union tactics being employed by Hyatt, and a lack of "trickle down" financial benefits going to workers from the large subsidies given to Hyatt by the city of Baltimore.

In my view, little of what Hyatt says holds up. And frankly, Yoga Journal's stated claims around the conference don't really hold up either. I tend to think that global capitalism and spiritual ethics don't mesh at all, and that's a big part of the reason why an organization like YJ, which probably has a fair number of thoughtful, reflective people involved in it, still struggles to uphold the basic values and ethics of the practice. Collective greed too often overwhelms individual voices. And the very ways in which businesses are structured under capitalist models tend to reinforce that greed, and the various forms of exploitation and violence needed to maintain said greed.

I do think there are other ways to build what might be called "business" that align with our deeper, spiritually-based values and ethics. But that's for another discussion, and given YJ's public position and ownership, I doubt something like ahimsa makes a lot of headway in decisions like choosing to stay at the Hyatt in San Francisco.

I'd like to end with a plug for this cool piece, by yet another 21st Century Yoga author, Matthew Remski. In it, he writes about grassroots built and supported yoga conferences. One excellent response to situations like this.

In addition to resisting injustice, more of us have to embody and create the liberated, just world we desire. It's not one or the other, though. It's both/and. So let's get to it!


Mumon K said...

It's unrealistic to think that Yoga Journal or anything like that is a "spiritually driven" business; although that might also point to my general desire to retire the word "spiritual" from common usage.

To be fair here, - really fair - I'd like you to put it in a slightly different perspective.

Somebody at that organization scheduled a conference, for which there was a penalty for cancellation.

They scheduled it in SFO; the only other real alternative in SFO is the Hilton, which is pricier.

Trust me, I've been at far too many conferences in SFO.

Somebody - somebody would have to be accountable for that decision, or, if it was punted to upper management (good strategy for dealing with hot potatoes), a group of people would be responsible, who may not share the "spiritual" values you assume (with justification) should be imparted to YJ.

I share your point of view here. Regardless, I don't stay at Hyatt Hotels generally - even when their isn't a strike -because they're crappy hotels for the money - their ergonomics are abominable, their food's way overpriced,...

AND they mistreat their workers.

But there's a nuance here, too, and really I should say this Yoga thing ain't really my community, but from folks I know that do practice Yoga, more than a couple could give a rat's patootie that workers are getting screwed, unfortunately.

Nathan said...

"I should say this Yoga thing ain't really my community, but from folks I know that do practice Yoga, more than a couple could give a rat's patootie that workers are getting screwed, unfortunately."

And unfortunately, that response is all too common amongst yoga folks. The practice is rarely connected by teachers to anyone beyond the individual. Even one's fellow yogis - in the same room during classes - are often an afterthought.

I hear you about the word spiritual. It's tired and almost meaningless these days. Wish I could find something better that applied.

Yoga Journal actually started out as something akin to a large newsletter form magazine, and was driven by teacher-practitioners until the mid-late 1990s, when a former investment banker who was into yoga purchased the magazine and shifted it towards its pop consumer yoga mag present. It could have taken a route similar to Buddhadharma magazine, which I think does a pretty good job of remaining viable in a difficult market, while offering fairly in depth, serious teaching and articles.