Picket Lines and Political Science

Image of graffiti reading "let's strike"

Image by Claudio Schwarz.

As an academic – a political scientist specifically – the conferences I attend usually pass unnoticed by the general public. This is with good reason, as they are short, highly specialized affairs. Occasionally, though, the world of academics collides with that outside the university. This is exactly what is happening this week in Los Angeles, where the American Political Science Association (APSA) is holding its annual conference. It is doing so even though thousands of UNITE HERE Local 11’s 32,000+ hotel, restaurant, and tourism industry workers have been on strike and without contracts since June 30 at sixty area hotels, and have repeatedly asked APSA to cancel, move, go online, or postpone the conference. UNITE HERE has now called for a citywide boycott of LA’s tourism industry to put pressure on the big corporate owners of the hotels to settle, meaning anyone visiting Los Angeles is not just potentially crossing a picket line but acting against the will of the LA tourism sector’s proletarian backbone.

Those of us who first heard the call from UNITE HERE a month ago and supported it rapidly coalesced around pressuring the APSA executive council to act in solidarity with fellow workers and to use its enormous potential leverage of over 6000 political scientists cancelling their stays in Los Angeles to aid the strikers. I am proud to be part of the over 1000 that signed an open letter calling on APSA to move with determination to cancel, postpone, or move the conference. Yet APSA leadership sent a series of confused and half-hearted messages to its membership and the union. It claimed potential financial hardship if the meeting were cancelled. Its tax filings seemingly belie that point, showing $58 million in assets, $21 million in annual revenue, and only $1.2 million spent on conferences. The organizational leadership also expressed concern for junior faculty and those traveling from other countries – and while these are concerns, APSA clearly has the cashflow to sort out refunds and subsidies for the hardest hit. APSA leaders also claim to be worried about the impact on LA’s local businesses if they cancelled their convention.

That impact is the point, though. Strikes are meant to inflict economic pain on the capitalist class and build pressure to force a settlement. UNITE HERE 11 workers are at the forefront of LA’s precariat, with many working years without permanent employment, facing racism, abuse, and uncertain housing and living conditions. Union workers are demanding raises, improved pension and health care benefits – similar to the demands made in recent years by contingent faculty in their unionization drives. As academics we are often in a privileged position to act in support of these strikes; the hardship from cancelling a conference is nothing like what UNITE HERE’s members face from decades of exploitation from international corporate bosses. It is hard to imagine teaching about class struggle and social conflict while refusing to act in solidarity with our fellow workers – but that is what APSA’s leadership is asking us to do.

Belatedly, APSA chose to move conference events from struck hotels to the LA Convention Center, though it kept contracts with struck hotels, essentially continuing its decision to strike break. Other meetings, such as the Democratic Governors Association, Japanese American Citizens League, and the Council of State Governments West, all found ways to cancel or postpone their LA conventions. Many of us worked to cancel our presentations or move them entirely online in full solidarity with the union. The actions of APSA’s council have, however, exposed a deep rift within the profession.

This is true as academia has been steadily proletarianized over the last four decades. Contingent faculty far outnumber those of us on the tenure-track and have struggled with similar problems of exploitation and job insecurity as UNITE HERE 11’s workers. APSA leadership’s decisions betray their thinking as organizational logic of cultural managers who see themselves as anything but working class. In a way those at elite research-institutions are indeed a form of comfortable labor aristocracy. It begs the question of what use the rest of us academic proletarians, who face political assault from bourgeois politicians, massive underfunding and budget cuts, low wages and benefits, have for a professional organization like APSA? If it cannot make the simple choice to act in solidarity, if it forces its own members to make a choice to cross a picket line to attend a conference, and if it has no political orientation towards building class solidarity and struggle, what use should we have for it?

There is a real space within political science for a conversation as to whether APSA is worth fighting for, or if building an alternative APSA with clear, class struggle and social justice aims, that combines the needs of a professional organization with organizing is the order of the day. If it is not quite a union, it should not simply be a professional group – but a movement organization as well. As conditions worsen for workers – academic included – there is little time to waste in doing so, and I hope that this conversation is sparked and intensified in the coming weeks and months.

Read the open letter to the APSA Council here.

Peter LaVenia received a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY. He has been an activist and organizer for over 15 years and has worked for Ralph Nader in that capacity. He is currently the co-chair of the Green Party of New York, and can be reached on Twitter: @votelavenia.