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City's labor leaders give the `hugging saint' the cold shoulder

Indian spiritual figure is snubbed over refusal to honor a union boycott of the LAX Hilton hotel.

June 18, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Amma, the renowned mystic known as the "hugging saint of India," arrived in Los Angeles over the weekend for five days of spiritual events, but the city's labor leaders are responding with the back of their hands.

The problem is Amma's choice of venue for her events: the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel.

Since August, the hotel has been the target of a boycott by Unite Here, a hotel workers' union that is seeking to organize workers at the Hilton and other hotels near Los Angeles International Airport.

The Hilton has been the most aggressive in opposing unionization.

Some groups, notably the California Teachers Assn., have canceled conventions scheduled at the hotel, and more than 30 elected officials, including seven of the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council, have endorsed the boycott.

In a statement last week, hotel officials said the boycott could hurt workers, but that its impact on the facility has been minimal.

In an interview Sunday, while she dispensed hugs to thousands of her devotees at the Hilton, Amma -- the name means mother -- said she had learned of the boycott after arriving in the United States last month to begin a 10-city tour.

She said she felt "very sad and concerned" for workers at the hotel but decided to stay with her Los Angeles venue so as not to disappoint her 15,000 devotees here, and because she did not feel comfortable, as a foreigner and visitor to the country, taking sides in a local dispute.

"Suppose I tell the hotel people, will they change their policy? They won't," she said, adding, "I don't want to interfere with the local affairs."

Aides noted that the event was being held at the Hilton in the second year of a two-year contract, signed by her local followers before the boycott began in August.

Amma, 53, whose real name is Mata Amritanandamayi, spoke in Malayalam, the language of her native state of Kerala in southern India. Her longtime aide, Swami Amrit, provided translation.

Even without formal religious training, by the age of 21 Amma was attracting spiritual seekers drawn to her message, which is not aligned with any formal religion. She says her "religion is love."

She has given more than 26 million hugs in more than 30 years of spiritual work.

Asked why she hugs, she replied: "That's like asking the river, why do you flow?"

joe.mathews@latimes.com

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