American Sociological Association: Reaffirm our commitment to labor rights

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To the American Sociological Association Council:

We write to express our concern regarding a survey sent to the ASA membership by ASA Executive Director Nancy Kidd on October 16, 2019. As part of an effort to gather membership input regarding location selection for future ASA meetings, the survey asked respondents to choose between several hypothetical pairs of hotel options, indicating which one would make them more likely to attend the ASA meeting, or if they would not attend the meeting under either scenario.

The hotel options presented varied according to three criteria: price, location, and unionization status. Our concern is with including unionization and labor rights among the factors to consider. Historically, ASA has taken a strong, principled stance in favor of holding our events at unionized venues. Indeed, in 2010, as ASA was preparing for the 2011 meeting, staff and Council leadership risked $1 million in cancellation penalties to honor a potential boycott of unionized Chicago hotels, which were in the midst of contract negotiations that year. 

In the end ASA went so far as to relocate the 2011 meeting from Chicago to Las Vegas in order to honor this commitment. Subsequent to this meeting, ASA staff were able to negotiate stronger “escape clauses” into future hotel contracts. These clauses gave ASA more flexibility in the event of a labor action that Council would find unacceptable for holding our meeting but not yet resulting in a strike or “disruption of service.”

We worry that the survey is inviting ASA members to renege on this principled stance. Strong ASA support for labor rights and working conditions is especially important given the dramatic increase in labor precarity in our own sector and employer attacks on academic trade unionism. The challenges many ASA members face in attending the annual meeting because of the lack of affordability are part and parcel of the challenges that our fellow workers in the hospitality industry are facing. Taking advantage of their poor working conditions to hold a less costly annual meeting benefits no one in the end, with the exception of the hotel owners. It is particularly troublesome to be considering this in a year when our meeting’s theme is “Power, Inequality, and Resistance at Work.”

Rather than backing away from our association’s commitment to promoting labor rights, we propose instead that we reaffirm that commitment. One concrete way of doing this would be to sign on as a partner of the FairHotel Program. This program was launched in 2014 by UNITE HERE, the union representing 270,000 working people in the U.S. and Canada in hotels, food services, laundromats, airports, garment manufacturing and other industries. It aims to assist organizations in selecting union hotels for their events and help them to avoid potentially disruptive labor disputes.

Supporting the FairHotel Program benefits working people because it only does business with companies that provide employees with a fair contract, living wages, job security, and a voice in the workplace. Additionally, patronizing FairHotel affiliates communicates to the hospitality industry and civic leaders that our association prefers hotels where workers are treated with justice and respect.

FairHotel Partners are asked to do three things:

  1. Prioritize FairHotels when traveling 
  2. Use UNITE HERE’s model protective language in event contracts
  3. Contact UNITE HERE before booking to get the labor forecast in our destination city

Since existing ASA practice already conforms to all three parts of the FairHotel program, signing on as a FairHotel Partner would simply restate ASA’s historic commitment to using unionized venues for its annual meetings.

We certainly understand the many trade-offs that ASA faces when planning its Annual Meeting. We simply do not believe it is consistent with our association’s mission or values to include workers’ rights among those trade-offs.


[NOTE: While the petition is being run using Barry Eidlin's account, it is a collective effort resulting from concerns expressed by many ASA members. The petition itself was drafted by Barry Eidlin, Katy Fox-Hodess, and Zachary Levenson.]