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Union to Input: Outgo!

A progressive film festival would do almost anything to respect a union boycott of the Hilton this May -- except lose over a half million dollars in penalties. The union will accept nothing less.
 
 
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Sally Jo Fifer has a million dollar problem.

Fifer heads the Independent Television Service (ITVS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded home for independent producers. Fifer and her organization are caught in the middle of a fierce labor dispute between the San Francisco Hilton Hotel and Unite Here Local 2, which represents hotel and restaurant workers.

The Hilton and 13 other hotels are at odds with more than 4,000 union workers in stalled contract negotiations that have no date for resumption. The union says it is fighting for "fair wages and pensions, affordable health care, and a respectful relationship now and in the future."

Following a two week strike last fall and a subsequent five week lockout, union members are now working and the hotels are at full service during an open-ended cooling off period brokered in November by Mayor Gavin Newsom. With no new talks scheduled, union representatives are now asking the public to boycott the hotels.

Fifer says she "absolutely understands and respects and supports" the union position.

To Michael Casey, president of local 2, the way to support the union is clear. "Get out of the hotel," says Casey. "That's how to help us."

Fifer's problem? ITVS is sponsoring Input 2005, an important international public media conference to be held May 1-5 at the Hilton, and Fifer says she can't afford to move it, citing a $663,000 penalty clause in the contract with the hotel, along with hundreds of thousands of estimated relocation costs.

The annual conference, "dedicated to the proposition that television should be public service in the public interest, and that access to the most honest, innovative, provocative, courageous and challenging broadcasting is a universal fundamental human right," brings together thousands of independent and public television professionals from dozens of countries. Held in a different country every May, it was last in the US six years ago, and last in the Bay Area -- long a center for independent media -- twenty-six. In addition to screening programs, the conference often leads to co-productions and joint ventures among participants.

In the last month, Local 2 supporters have launched an e-mail campaign to numerous independent media organizations and producers, encouraging them to join in putting pressure on ITVS and INPUT to relocate the conference from the Hilton. Fifer says she's "heartsick" about the situation, but has no choice. "Ironically, one of the reasons we chose the hotel in the first place was because it was unionized," she says, adding that the contract did have an escape clause in the event of a strike. Since there is no strike now -- only the union call for a boycott -- ITVS has been advised that it is in a binding legal agreement with the hotel, and Fifer says her publicly funded non-profit group lacks sufficient financial resources not to proceed as planned. Nevertheless, Fifer would like to be supportive of the union, and says she has suggested some creative alternatives, such as "sponsoring screenings of labor films, holding forums and discussions, and having independent filmmakers document the struggle of local 2 against the hotels.

"We've offered to support the union in any way we could," says Fifer. "Just because I can't move the conference, doesn't mean I don't support the union!"

"If you support them financially, you're NOT supporting us," counters local 2 Boycott Community Coordinator Kelly Dugan. "We don't want any other support. The fight is economic. The only way to support us is to honor the boycott -- either move or you're aiding our enemy."

"We don't give passes to anybody," adds Michael Casey. "There is no 'creative solution.' There is no middle ground."

"Look, we're in a war," says Casey. "We're fighting for our lives. These corporations are trying to break our union. They're forcing low-paid workers to pay hundreds of dollars in increased health costs. And we're not going to be made to feel defensive because some progressive film makers feel guilty."

Moreover, Casey says he resents attempts by Fifer and other progressives to "redefine" what his members need to do to win their struggle. "Sometimes it's hard for liberals to understand," he says. "They try to tell unions what's in their best interest. We define our own interest, and we know goddamn well how to win. There's not much of a gray area for our workers."

Despite his expressed reservations about liberals, Casey and his union has received a lot of support from them so far. Mayor Newsom is respecting the boycott, for example, skipping such events as last month's Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and last week the Sierra Club announced that it had canceled reservations for about 1,000 rooms at the San Francisco Hilton that it was holding to accommodate people attending a major gathering in September.

Unlike ITVS, however, Sierra Club entered into a contract with the Hilton after the strike and lockout. Accordingly, the club included a clause in the contract that allowed it to cancel without penalty if the workers' contract was not resolved, Sierra Club executive Julia Reitan told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"We work as an organization side by side with labor unions on many issues," Reitan said. "We are in partnership and support each other." The club, she added, took a risk in exercising the escape clause only because no guaranteed replacement rooms could be found.

Meanwhile, independent filmmakers who had been looking forward to Input say they are "utterly depressed" at the conflict between the union and ITVS. "There could have and should have been an alliance built here," one Bay Area indie producer told me. "Instead -- at a time when we need independent media more than ever, we filmmakers are stuck in the middle." Sally Fifer also feels stuck. "As an organization, ITVS has spent years committed to programming that values economic and social justice. We did three years of fundraising and planning for this, because we have such a passionate belief that this is a critical time for forging international relationships and bringing international films and perspectives to America, she says. "This is programming that can make a huge difference in people around the world understanding one another. "So we struggled with this for quite a while. I've second-guessed myself a million times. I tried to move, I would have given anything to move. I just can't.

"It's a bottom line deal," concludes Fifer. "And there are three dueling bottom lines: the hotels, the unions, and ours."

A complete list of hotels being boycotted is available on the website along with additional information about the labor dispute.

For answers to frequently asked questions about the San Francisco hotel boycott, go here.

For more about ITVS, go here.

This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.