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Political scientists confront real world politics dealing with hotel workers strike

Striking hotel workers rally outside the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown Hotel on Tuesday, July 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Damian Dovarganes
Striking hotel workers rally outside the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown Hotel on Tuesday, July 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Los Angeles has been at the forefront of this summer's wave of labor unrest – and it's creating a political dilemma for a group of political scientists.

The American Political Science Association, or APSA, is holding its annual meeting in Los Angeles this weekend, despite calls from striking hotel workers for conferences to stay away from the city. About 6,000 people were expected to attend.

But the JW Marriott, where the conference was initially set to be held, is one of the dozens of hotels where workers have been staging rolling strikes for weeks. APSA has room blocks at other strike-ready hotels. Thousands of workers at downtown Los Angeles hotels walked off the job on Wednesday, just before the start of the APSA event.

Academics are divided over whether to attend the meeting.

"Now, the membership is polarized," said Erin Pineda, a professor of government at Smith College. "The battle lines are those who cross pickets and those who don't."

In a July 19 letter to APSA executive director Steven Smith, Unite Here Local 11 – the union that represents roughly 15,000 hotel workers – asked the group to cancel their meeting, to put pressure on the hospitality industry to meet their demands for higher wages. Workers have been staging rolling strikes at dozens of hotels since early July, when the union contracts for workers at about 60 hotels expired.

APSA leadership responded the following week, saying the conference would move forward in Los Angeles, but with significant modifications. APSA leaders moved all panels and events originally scheduled to take place at the JW Marriott to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which is not subject to labor action.

Members of Unite Here Local 11 picket in front of the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Los Angeles on August 24, 2023.
Danielle Kaye / NPR
Members of Unite Here Local 11 picket in front of the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Los Angeles on August 24, 2023.

APSA did not respond to requests for comment. The group said in a July 28 statement that the time frame was too short to relocate the meeting outside of Los Angeles. They said they'd stand to lose at least $2.8 million in cancellation costs.

"We plan to proceed with the meeting while making every effort to minimize the chances that members will have to cross picket lines to attend APSA events," APSA said in the statement.

But this decision has sparked backlash from some APSA members. At least hundreds of scholars have withdrawn from the event in solidarity with the striking hotel workers.

"Political science members of APSA are now voting with their feet," said Peter Dreier, a political science professor at Occidental College, who isn't attending the meeting. "I wouldn't be surprised if less than 3,000 people actually show up. I think there's going to be a significant decline."

Pushback from academics

The escalating hotel strikes are spurring heated debate among the thousands of scholars, ranging from graduate students to professors who typically attend the APSA meeting.

Dreier is among those condemning APSA's decision to maintain an in-person presence in Los Angeles. He said canceling the meeting or moving it entirely online would "send a message that we are in solidarity with the people who are suffering the most in America."

The Latino Caucus of Political Science has withdrawn from this year's conference. Other groups are also urging their members not to attend.

"We continue to stand in solidarity with the heavily Latina and immigrant hotel workers of Los Angeles and Southern California," leaders of the Latino Caucus said in a statement. "We believe this moment calls for a collective response in solidarity with the Union and hotel workers."

Pineda, who isn't traveling to Los Angeles, said the conference is still reliant on hotels where workers are on strike. APSA still has room blocks at several of them, according to its website.

APSA's decision to stay in Los Angeles, Pineda added, shifts the burden on individual members to figure out how to avoid crossing picket lines.

"I'm not crossing picket lines"

But not all APSA members think the strikes necessitate an all-or-nothing response. Ellen Lust, a political science professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, arrived in Los Angeles this week to attend the conference in-person.

Lust had originally booked a room at the JW Marriott. She canceled her reservation last month and opted for an Airbnb instead.

"I'm not crossing picket lines – that's a position I take," Lust said.

Lust also helped move her comparative politics group's meeting online to accommodate those who've chosen not to travel to Los Angeles. And she moved their reception from the JW Marriott to a restaurant.

Jack Zhang, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, is also attending in-person this weekend. He said he hopes hotel workers get the raises they're seeking – but that calling off the conference altogether isn't a feasible show of support.

"The vast majority of faculty are sympathetic to the hotel workers," Zhang said. "The problem is that moving a conference last-minute, or canceling a conference – there's a huge cost."

Last week, Unite Here Local 11 broadened its call for solidarity by asking all conventions to stay away from Los Angeles until the hotels meet their demands.

The union and the hotels are far from reaching an agreement. That means political scientists likely won't be the last group to navigate their Los Angeles events in the midst of major labor action.

"When groups say they are going to stay away from LA...we think it sends a message to the industry that it's time for them to settle," said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11.

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Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.