A Political Battle Within Political Science: Which Side Is the APSA On?

A Political Battle Within Political Science: Which Side Is the APSA On?

A Political Battle Within Political Science: Which Side Is the APSA On?

The hotel workers’ strike in Los Angeles will force members of the American Political Science Association—and Taylor Swift fans—to decide whether or not to cross union picket lines.

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Like all professional academic gatherings, the American Political Science Association’s annual four-day conference is a time for professors and graduate students to exchange ideas about research and teaching, renew friendships, sell books, and interview for jobs.

But the 6,000 political scientists who are scheduled to visit Los Angeles for this year’s APSA conference will be confronted with a real political dilemma: Should they cross a union picket line at the hotels where they are staying and where the meetings are taking place during Labor Day weekend, from August 31 to September 3?

The APSA staff had been aware since April that UNITE HERE Local 11—whose members include hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, bellmen, cooks, servers, and front desk agents—were in contract negotiations with the hotels and might go on strike. But they didn’t take that possibility seriously until June, when 96 percent of Local 11 members voted to authorize a strike.

Since the strike began on July 21, over 15,000 members have walked out at 43 hotels, including the J.W. Marriott, headquarters for the APSA meeting, where one-third of the conference sessions were to be held. (The rest are scheduled at the LA convention center, whose workers are not on strike.) The APSA has contracts with 10 other hotels to reserve rooms for members at discount rates.

When the strike began, the union sent a letter to APSA Executive Director Steven Smith asking the organization to cancel, postpone, or move the annual meeting, or shift it to an online format.

The union has already persuaded the Japanese American Citizens League, the W.K Kellogg Foundation, the TV show Vanderpump Rules, and the Democratic Governors Association to postpone or move their events. In a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times, the union also urged singer Taylor Swift to cancel her concerts—scheduled at SoFi stadium in Inglewood, adjacent to LA, from August 3 to August 9—which will bring many tourists to the hotels where workers are on strike. The Federal Reserve recently reported that Swift’s tour significantly raises hotel room rates.

Local 11 hopes that persuading the APSA and Swift to respect picket lines would pressure the hotels—most of them owned by global chains and private equity firms like Starwood Capital and Blackstone–to settle their dispute with the union and sign another three-year contract.

Many political scientists urged the APSA to support the union’s request, but the organization’s elected Executive Council, at an emergency meeting on Friday, July 28, decided by a 19-4 vote to go ahead with the in-person meeting.

“APSA’s decision to move forward with their annual conference in Los Angeles is a gut punch to tens of thousands of workers who are fighting for a living wage,” said Kurt Petersen, copresident of Local 11. “We call on APSA’s Executive Council to rethink their decision and move the entire conference online, as they have done before.”

The meeting involves 1,500 scheduled panel sessions and receptions as well as job interviews.

The APSA issued a statement Friday afternoon declaring, “We are in a no-win situation,” and noting that it could lose close to $3 million if it canceled the conference, much of it involving penalties to the hotels.

APSA president Lisa Martin, a University of Wisconsin professor, acknowledged that “many people will be very unhappy with this decision. They won’t come to the annual meeting or even renew their membership.”

This is not the first time the APSA has had the opportunity to stand up for labor rights. It moved its 2006 meeting from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and its 2011 meeting from San Francisco to Seattle. Both occurred before Zoom was available.

In 2020, at the start of the Covid pandemic, the APSA quickly moved its annual meeting online. The next year it held a hybrid meeting, with about half participating virtually and half attending in-person in Seattle. Since then, most organizations, and most college faculty, have had considerable experience with online events.

Julie Novkov, a University of Albany political scientist and former APSA Executive Council member, edits the association’s flagship journal, the American Political Science Review. Novkov said that she and the other 10 editors will not attend a reception for the journal scheduled for the Marriott.

Harvard’s Jane Mansbridge, who served as APSA president in 2012–13, says “There’s still time to get the APSA to do the right thing.” She wants the APSA to shift all events to the convention center (which is not on strike). If that’s not possible, she says APSA should help session chairs move any events now planned for the Marriott to on-line.

“People can still come to LA, meet with friends, share ideas, attend some sessions at the convention center, and log in to the others. They won’t have to cross any picket lines.”

Mansbridge also suggested that APSA members with room reservations at the Marriott warn the hotel that they will cancel 72 hours in advance if it doesn’t settle with the union.

“I don’t think a lot of people will cross a picket line,” said Stanford University political scientist Margaret Levi, who was APSA president in 2004–05.

Two other former APSA presidents—Columbia University’s Ira Katznelson and University of Pennsylvania’s Rogers Smith—said they wouldn’t cross a picket line.

Two current Executive Council members—Pomona College’s Susan McWilliams Barndt and Hunter College’s Jillian Schwedler—also said they’d respect the union’s picket line. “I know other Executive Council members and many APSA members who won’t cross either,” Barndt said.

“I registered for the meeting some time ago,” said Isaac Hale, an assistant professor of politics at Occidental College, “but there is no chance I’m crossing a picket line.”

“It’s going to a chaotic, crazy conference if the hotel workers are still on strike,” said Williams College’s Sidney Rothstein, who cochairs the APSA’s labor politics section.

On July 20, Rothstein helped circulate an open letter from political scientists asking the APSA to respect UNITE HERE’s request. Within a week, over 1,000 people had already signed, with more joining every day.

Micah English, a graduate student in political science, is a leader of the Yale Graduate Student Union, which is affiliated with UNITE HERE.

She is scheduled to participate in three events at the convention, but says she and the other panelists will cancel the sessions, or hold them online, rather than cross a union picket line. She’ll stay with friends in LA rather than in a hotel whose workers are on strike.

“I find it despicable that APSA doesn’t understand that the right choice is to leverage our power to help the hotel workers.”

Although the APSA has a formal policy of giving preference to unionized hotels for its meetings, APSA’s Smith refused to provide the elected officers and Executive Council members copies of its contracts with the hotels or disclose if they included provisions allowing it to cancel the meeting without paying any penalties in the event of a labor dispute.

According to informed sources, Smith had hoped that the union and hotels would settle their conflict before Labor Day and thus didn’t make contingency plans. But as of the last week in July, the prospects for such a settlement seemed remote, with the two sides far apart. As a result, the academics who attend the conference will have to decide: Which side are they on?

When the political scientists arrive, Jovani Ramirez, a cook who works at both the Beverly Hilton and Fairmont Century Plaza, will be on the picket lines. She commutes more than an hour from Santa Clarita, where rents are cheaper than in LA.

“I’m on strike because I work two full-time jobs to provide for my four children,” she said. “I need free family health care because my youngest son is autistic. It is morally wrong that I work 16 hours a day in our most prosperous industry but cannot afford to live in Los Angeles.”

The union is asking for a $5 immediate hourly wage increase, and a $3 boost each subsequent year of the three-year contract, for a total raise of $11. The union also has made proposals regarding pensions, health care, workload, and a policy against hotels using E-Verify—a federal system used to check work eligibility—to protect immigrant workers. It also wants the hotels to impose a 7 percent fee on all guest room sales to create a fund to help workers pay their rent. A typical two-bedroom apartment in LA rents for close to $3,000. A survey of Local 11 members found that 53 percent had moved in the past five years or will move in the near future because of soaring housing costs.

So far, only the Westin Bonaventure in downtown LA has reached a tentative agreement. The union wants the other hotels to agree to the same contract.

The most recent proposal from hotels—which the union rejected—would amount to a $6.25 per hour total increase by January 2028.

The union has accused the hotels of hiring “scab” workers, many from out of state.

Even with the new strikebreakers, however, many hotels have already cut back on some core services, such as not cleaning every room each day and shifting food offerings from full-service to buffet style.

During the pandemic, LA area hotels received $14 billion in federal bailouts while cutting jobs. Many Local 11 members were laid off and suffered significant hardships. This year, hotel revenues in Los Angeles County exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

UNITE HERE Local 11 wants to lift pay and working conditions in anticipation of LA hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2026 and the Olympics in 2028. Such mega sports events often leave local governments indebted for years and permanently displace many low-income residents due to gentrification.

In the past decade, many organizations have moved or cancelled meetings over labor issues as well as concerns over abortion and LGBTQ rights. In 2021, Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver after the Georgia legislature passed a law that restricted voting access for people of color.

Local 11 has been at the forefront of the upsurge of labor activism. It spearheaded minimum wage laws in Los Angeles and nearby cities, pushed several cities to require hotels to address widespread sexual harassment of hotel housekeepers, and played a key role in a successful ballot measure in LA last November to impose a “mansion tax” on property sales over $5 million to be used to build new low-income housing and provide help to renters facing eviction. The union has helped elect many pro-union candidates to office, including former UNITE HERE staffers state Senator Maria Elena Durazo and LA City Council member Hugo Soto-Martínez

Los Angeles itself is currently ground zero for a growing upsurge of labor activism. Members of SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild have been on strike for weeks and have brought the production of Hollywood films and TV shows to a halt. In the past two years, LA’s public school teachers and other school employees have gone on struck, mobilizing unprecedented support from parents, community activists, and elected officials.

A Gallup Poll last year found that 71 percent of Americans now support unions—the highest proportion since 1965.

Margaret Weir, a Brown University professor, has been to at least 21 of the past 25 APSA meetings, served on its Executive Council, and describes herself as a “very dedicated APSA member,” but she won’t cross a union picket line.

“A lot of us understand how important unions are in addressing inequality,” Weir noted. “We don’t want to undermine the efforts of unions.”

“As political scientists, we spend our lives teaching about democracy and human rights,” observed Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon professor. “But if, in the real world, we ignore all of that when it is inconvenient, it makes us into hypocrites and hollows out the integrity of what we’re trying to teach students.”

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