A Scholarly Affair With a Side of Social Activism

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CHICAGO -- The joint meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion drew 10,700 scholars, professors, publishers and clergy members to the McCormick Place Convention Center last weekend, where for four days they established their alternate universe. It was reminiscent of the Mos Eisley cantina in "Star Wars," filled with polyglot eccentrics. Dead languages lived (He speaks Latin! She reads Akkadian!). One saw robed Buddhist monks; priests and friars, collared or cassocked; nuns, in habit or not; imams in kufis; the occasional yarmulked Jew. And thousands more in rumpled khakis, nametag on lanyard like an officer's medals. They clutched biblical concordances, Hebrew lexicons, Gospel commentaries.

The scholarly jargon may have been hard to decipher, but the topics of the panel discussions were often earthy and real: theological responses to AIDS or poverty, for example. Or the problem of evil, why bad things happen to good people. Religious questions are never just academic; they are what scared children ask their parents.

Doing her own kind of religious work, Carolyn Roncolato, a 29-year-old graduate student at Chicago Theological Seminary, was in the hallway near the registration booths, handing out buttons that said "I SUPPORT THE HYATT BOYCOTT." To hear Ms. Roncolato explain it, astral theorizing and scholarly jargon are meaningless if they can't touch down on the hard turf of workers' rights.

At two of the hotels booked for these conventioneers, the Hyatt McCormick and the Hyatt Regency, unionized housekeepers have been working without a contract since 2009. Unite Here, their union, wants Hyatt to give its housekeepers the same contract several other hotels in Chicago have already signed, but Hyatt has refused.

Ms. Roncolato, in her third year as a volunteer for the union local, handed boycott buttons to arriving scholars. "The Hyatt does routinely unjust things," she said. "They don't give their housekeepers mops, so they have to scrub the floor on hands and knees. They won't give them fitted sheets for the bed, so they have to lift the 100-pound mattresses up and fold sheets under. I understand it to be an ethical issue, an issue of justice, an issue of civic engagement."

So it was both convenient and troubling that the American Academy of Religion, of which Ms. Roncolato is a member, was planning to use two Hyatts in Chicago. Ms. Roncolato was to present two papers, including "Mimetic Conception: Infertility Treatment as Deconstruction and Reinscription of Western Maternality and Heteronormativity." She and other scholars fought, successfully, to get all sessions moved from the boycoted Hyatt McCormick. The Hyatt Regency was used just for lodging.

"We write papers and present papers on systemic injustice, racism, classism, sexism," Ms. Roncolato said. "So the idea that we would stay at the Hyatt totally undermines what we do."

Doug Patrick, a spokesman for Hyatt, contested Ms. Roncolato's claims.

"Our housekeepers have access to long-handled brooms, mops, sanitizing products -- the things they need to do their jobs every day," Mr. Patrick said. "We looked into the fitted sheets request, and to be honest, it actually requires more work on the housekeeper's part than a regular sheet."

Mr. Patrick said one sticking point in the contract negotiations was the company's policy of outsourcing some catering jobs and other tasks. He added that in his view Unite Here was preventing a settlement, to keep attention on its national campaign of organizing Hyatt hotels.

Ms. Roncolato's mother is a Methodist minister in Meadville, Pa. Her father, Dave, was here, helping his daughter publicize the boycott. They suggested that academy members attend an American Academy of Religion business meeting on Sunday morning, where Ms. Roncolato would propose a pro-labor resolution.

At the meeting, only about 70 of thousands of members showed up. The resolution, a nonbinding recommendation to the board, passed by acclamation. It proposed that clauses in future hotel and convention contracts provide that "if there is a boycott, strike, lockout, picketing or other labor dispute," the organization "will be released from all contractual obligations without charge or penalty."

One of the three nays, Rex D. Matthews, of Emory University in Atlanta, worried that the resolution might empower mischief-makers who did not really represent workers.

"If any group wanted to carry picket signs, that would trigger the resolution," Mr. Matthews said. Asked if he generally supported labor unions, he said, "That's none of your business."

And a second nay, John J. O'Keefe, of Creighton University in Nebraska, worried that the resolution could imperil the alliance between the two scholarly organizations. The American Academy of Religion includes people of all faiths, researching all faiths; many of its members are not themselves religious. Society of Biblical Literature members focus on Christian and Jewish Scripture and are somewhat more likely to be believers. From 2008 to 2010, the societies met separately, after a controversial split, before reuniting last year.

"I'm sensitive to the reintegration" of the smaller group, Mr. O'Keefe said. "The S.B.L. in general is less inclined to move from scholarship to activism."

John Kutsko, the executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, is part of a joint task force charged with agreeing on a labor policy. Because it and the American Academy of Religion sign hotel contracts together, they would have to agree on any pro-labor language. He was optimistic about finding common ground with the academy, but said he also wanted to honor the diversity of his society's membership.

"We understand a principle of a learned society is to provide an open forum for intellectual exchange of ideas," Mr. Kutsko said. "Within that there are going to be differences of opinion, including on labor issues."

Ms. Roncolato, the boycott organizer, said that the Bible compels her to support the boycott. "The Gospels are very clear that the Christian call is to stand on the side of the marginalized, and in that case it's very clear that's the hotel workers," she said. "So the idea that as academics we would ignore the people around us while we talk is hypocritical."

mark.e.oppenheimer@gmail.com; twitter.com/markopp1

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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