Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The APA and Social Responsibility

At the Eastern APA meeting in December 1948, according to Bruce Kuklick, the philosopher William Fontaine was prohibited from using the convention hotel in Charlottesville, VA. Fontaine, who taught philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania from the 1940s to the 60s, was Black, and racial segregation was the social and legal norm at the time in Charlottesville. The following year, the APA resolved not to hold meetings in segregated cities. Looking back, I think most of us would say (and be proud) that the APA did the right thing.

The times in which we now live are no less troubling in terms of social inequality, racial and ethnic prejudice, and human suffering.  Because of this, some decisions, such as choosing cities and hotels to hold APA meetings, can have considerable social significance and repercussions. In 2005, as many already know, the Pacific Division Executive Committee (PDEC) ignored a request by the union representing the workers at our conference hotel to honor their boycott. Unite Here labor leaders made this request to the PDEC, in January of 2005, because they believed then that management was not bargaining in good faith and had deployed coercive tactics to force the workers to accept an unfair contract. Although several other academic professional organizations decided to honor the boycott and move their meetings, we don’t know whether the APA could have done the same, while protecting the interests of its members and the organization. That is, we can’t know this without more details about our 2005 meeting contract and without knowing what our members would have thought if they had been informed about the labor situation in Jan. 2005. What is unforgivable, though, is that the PDEC did not inform APA members that the union had made a request to honor their boycott to our organization. When word eventually got out about the boycott and strike call only a few weeks before the meeting, through the efforts of a dissident philosopher, the PDEC put out “disinformation” about the labor situation, suggesting that there was only a “dispute” and that the parties were still negotiating, ignoring the union’s perspective that negotiations had broken down.
One of the primary issues in this contract dispute is whether hotel workers will maintain affordable health insurance—a benefit enjoyed by most of the people who stay in the hotels in which they work. Although philosophers hold diverse views on ideal political and economic arrangements, the struggle of hotel workers for access to affordable health care is a worthy cause and their request should have been heard by members of the APA. The PDEC has recently decided to return to San Francisco in 2007, and to the same hotel as in 2005 (Westin St. Francis). Although the contract dispute has not been settled in San Francisco, management at the St. Francis “broke ranks” last September and stated that it would agree to one of the key union demands if it would resolve the dispute (SFGate). As a result, Unite Here leaders have removed the St. Francis from its boycott list.
It is very unclear, though, whether signing another contract with the St. Francis is in the best interest of the APA. The contract dispute may not be resolved by the date of our next meeting and there is a significant chance that there will be another hotel strike in San Francisco and in other cities across the nation. What will the PDEC decide if there is a strike, or if the St. Francis is put back on the boycott list? Because of the unstable labor situation in San Francisco, some organizations are arranging to meet in cities and union hotels that have settled contracts with their workers. For example, the American Anthropological Association is meeting in San Jose this year. When I’ve asked members of the PDEC whether they have considered other options, I have been told that San Francisco is a popular meeting site for our members, based on attendance figures at past meetings. Yet, would San Francisco be a popular choice for 2007 if members knew they may have to cross picket lines or enter a hotel whose workers are working without a contract and where there is a bitter and protracted labor dispute? Even if our contract allows us to cancel in these circumstances, what plans has the PDEC made for this?
And why is the APA not informing its members about unresolved hotel contract disputes in the cities in which we regularly meet (e.g., Chicago, New York, Boston), soliciting member input, and discussing alternative cities?  It would be interesting to know how the Eastern APA reached its decision, after its 1948 meeting, not to meet in segregated cities, and whether members were consulted and what issues were considered.  Are professional developers, philosophers, and the organizations that represent us, less socially conscious now than sixty years ago?  I hope not.

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