Tag Archives: academics

Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor


Special Issue of Workplace
Edited by
Karen Lynn Gregory & Joss Winn

Articles in Workplace have repeatedly called for increased collective organisation in opposition to a disturbing trajectory in the contemporary university… we suggest that there is one response to the transformation of the university that has yet to be adequately explored: A thoroughgoing and reflexive critique of academic labor. 

Table of Contents

  • Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor
    Karen Lynn Gregory, Joss Winn
  • Towards an Orthodox Marxian Reading of Subsumption(s) of Academic Labour under Capital
    Krystian Szadkowski
  • Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety
    Richard Hall, Kate Bowles
  • Taxi Professors: Academic Labour in Chile, a Critical-Practical Response to the Politics of Worker Identity
    Elisabeth Simbürger, Mike Neary
  • Marxism and Open Access in the Humanities: Turning Academic Labor against Itself
    David Golumbia
  • Labour in the Academic Borderlands: Unveiling the Tyranny of Neoliberal Policies
    Antonia Darder, Tom G. Griffiths
  • Jobless Higher Ed: Revisited, An Interview with Stanley Aronowitz
    Stanley Aronowitz, Karen Lynn Gregory

Theory into practice: Social justice, solidarity & AESA

The American Educational Studies Association is currently facing a dilemma that forces its leadership and membership to decide just how committed they are to the principles of social justice, principles upon which the organization has built its reputation.

How much are the organization’s principles worth?

Should AESA members cross the picket lines and hold its 2016 meeting at the Grand Hyatt Seattle to save itself from an $83,000 cancellation fee? Or, bite the financial bullet in the name of walking the talk on social justice, solidarity, allyship?

Yesterday the AESA membership voted to punt these questions back to the leadership. But before that decision was made there was a long and sometimes puzzling discussion of these issues. Below are some musings on that discussion.

Spot the similarities: AESA 2015 / CUFA-NCSS 1998

Similarities between the AESA’s financial versus principles dilemma and the one CUFA-NCSS faced in the 1990s are striking.

I was deeply involved debates/actions related to the boycott of California in the 1990s in response to the racist, anti-immigrant Proposition 187. Prop 187 was passed in 1994. The College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies was scheduled to meet in Anaheim in 1998.

At its 1994 meeting in Phoenix, the membership of CUFA-NCSS voted to boycott Anaheim and then lobbied NCSS to do the same. NCSS, which is a profoundly conservative organization, rejected the boycott arguing that it had “contractual obligations.”

Despite that fact that CUFA leadership had four years to make arrangements for an alternative meeting site (CUFA is an affiliated group of NCSS and while it meets in conjunction with the larger organization, it functions as an autonomous group), it took no substantive action.

The delay tactic worked, creating a crisis situation.

In 1997, the combined efforts of the leadership of CUFA and NCSS convinced the CUFA membership to rescind its boycott and meet in Anaheim. Every African American member of CUFA-NCSS (and a few others) in the room quit the organization the night of the vote.

NCSS did not condemn the racist, xenophobic Prop 187 until 1997. It also promised not to meet in California while Prop 187 was in effect, with the exception of the 1998 meeting in Anaheim.

With their actions the NCSS-CUFA leadership was boldly saying something like:

Sometimes doing the right is inconvenient, so we’ll make our commitment to social justice when it doesn’t hurt our pocketbook. Don’t you know we have contractual obligations!

In the AESA 2015 business meeting (held in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt San Antonio), many folks offered up similar lines of reasoning as CUFA-NCSS leadership on why the organization can’t take a stand in solidarity with the workers at the Grand Hyatt Seattle:

  • contractual obligations / sizeable cancelation penalty
  • financial hit would have deleterious effects on the organization
  • let’s wait and see what happens
  • boycotting the hotel will not accomplish anything
  • boycotting the hotel will hurt the workers
  • let’s illustrate our solidarity by our academic discourse, not a boycott
  • not all organizations are boycotting, etc.

In addition, as was pointed out at yesterday’s meeting, AESA’s leadership has been aware of the union boycott of the Grand Hyatt Seattle for years, but never developed any viable alternatives.

To be fair the AESA Executive Council (EC) offered up several options, including a “shadow conference,” but none of these were thought through. There was not even a detailed assessment of the impact of the cancelation fee on the AESA finances. (Although one EC member stated AESA has the funds to pay the cancelation fee, which was supported by the financial report distributed to members).

Rather than providing concrete details to members about risk factors and logistical options, the EC members raised the spectre of members having to cover the costs of the cancelation fee via increased conference/membership rates and the difficulty of finding alternative spaces for the Seattle meeting, implying that honouring the boycott meant cancelling the 2016 meeting.

Perhaps the most appalling leadership tactic was a long harangue by an EC member that argued Grand Hyatt Seattle workers already had a pretty good hourly wage and being able to form a union would not increase their wages much. This EC member also offered up the twisted logic that drinking coffee from un-unionized Starbucks wasn’t much different from crossing a picket line at the Grand Hyatt Seattle … and everybody drinks coffee from Starbucks, right?

The leadership of AESA is correct that there’s not much time left to make a plan for an alternative site for the 2016 meeting, which begs the question of what they’ve been doing the past 4 years. Likely, just hoping that situation would resolve itself and save AESA from having to make a tough choice.

In some ways the membership endorsed that strategy by refusing to take a vote on the motion to honor the boycott and instead kicking the issue back to the EC.

Some EC members repeatedly stated their concern for the Hyatt workers and their desire to be responsive to members who support the UNITE HERE Local 8 boycott. But, these sentiments were weakened in the face of repeated statements that the EC wanted to investigate the circumstances of boycott before they took any action.

Which side is the AESA EC on? After yesterday’s meeting I have a strong feeling this is a repeat for the CUFA-NCSS California boycott debacle.


AESA is an organization whose members frequently write about social inequity, privilege, and allyship. But there was a stunning lack of sensitivity to these issues in the business meeting discussion of the boycott.

I am convinced that if one substituted people of color or LGBTQI folks for the members of UNITE HERE Local 8, many of the comments made in the business meeting would be immediately rejected by most AESA members has reflective of the privileged telling oppressed people what their problems are and how they should be solved.

Indeed many comments were the opposite of allyship:

  • UNITE HERE Local 8 wants to make this an either/or question and it’s not;
  • We want to support the workers, but I don’t think the boycott is the best way;
  • The union is not interested in other ways we can support the workers.

These kinds of expressions ignore what the workers have requested of would be allies, namely not to eat, sleep, or meet at the Grand Hyatt Seattle.

Many members of AESA obviously think they have better ideas for how they might support Local 8, and are offended when the union isn’t interested in what they think.

As the Anti-Oppression Network argues:

allyship …is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. Allyship is not self-defined—our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with …

Is There Potential for an Organizational Split in AESA?

I heard lots of talk at AESA about holding an alternative meeting (and protesting) if AESA goes ahead with its plan to meet at the Grand Hyatt Seattle.

The circumstances have significant differences, but the CUFA-NCSS boycott collapse was a significant factor in the creation of the Rouge Forum, which worked within CUFA-NCSS for a years, but ultimately went its separate way.

While remote, I do believe there is possibility of a faction within AESA looking elsewhere if the current plans for AESA 2016 are not changed. At the very least there might be reduced commitment to the organization by some members if AESA cannot find the will to walk its talk.

Based upon yesterday’s dialogue, some members of the EC seem quite sincere in their pledge to lead AESA out of this dilemma, while preserving its credibility as an organization committed to social justice.

What AESA needs right now is a little less conversation and a little more action.


UNITE HERE Local 8 and the AESA 2016 meeting in Seattle

The American Educational Studies Association is meeting in San Antonio this week and the key issue of its business meeting on Saturday was how the organization should respond to the ongoing union boycott of the site of its 2016 meeting in Seattle.

UNITE HERE / Hyatt Dispute and Settlement

Several years ago AESA entered into a contract with the Grand Hyatt in Seattle for its 2016 meeting. The Hyatt hotel chain has for some time been an organizing target of UNITE HERE, whose 265,000 members work primarily in the hospitality industry.

In July 2013, an agreement was reached between Hyatt and UNITE HERE that ended a years long stalemate between the union and Hyatt as well as ending a national boycott of Hyatt-managed properties.

Doug Patrick, senior VP of human resources for Hyatt said of the agreement:

The national agreement between Hyatt and UNITE HERE is great news for our associates in markets where they haven’t seen wage increases in four years … The associates will see the increases in wage and benefit enhancements they deserve.

UNITE HERE described the key provision of the agreement as establishing “a fair process,” which includes a mechanism for employees at a number of Hyatt hotels to vote on whether they wish to be represented by UNITE HERE.

David Sherwyn, associate professor of law and academic director for The Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration has described the deal as good for both sides. He told Hotel News Now (HNN),

What it also shows is the belief of the inadequacy of the NLRB election. UNITE HERE was adamant that they didn’t want to go to an NLRB election where you can do all kinds of mean and nasty stuff.

HNN reported that that Hyatt didn’t want to authorize card-check voting. According to Sherwyn, Hyatt wanted employees to go into booths to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for elections. Card check involves a lot of peer pressure because voting is done in public, which Hyatt was against.

“(UNITE HERE is) giving them an election, and I’m sure that they set some sort of ground rules about what they can and cannot be said and how the election is going to be done and so on,” Sherwyn told HNN. “What I’m inferring is that Hyatt feels good because at the end of the day their employees are getting a vote.”

The rub for AESA’s 2016 meeting in Seattle is that the national agreement applies only to Hyatt-managed hotels and the the owner of the Grand Hyatt Seattle, Richard Hedreen, has refused to allow employees access to that fair process (e.g., card check).

The response from UNITE HERE Local 8 in Seattle has been to ask customers to boycott the Grand Hyatt Seattle (and Hyatt at Olive 8).

UNITE HERE Local 8 says the Boycott of Grand Hyatt Seattle is based on the following issues:

  • Heavy workloads. Hotel housekeeping work is difficult work that can lead to debilitating pain and injuries. Hyatt at Olive 8 Houseman Yuan Ping Tang reports that he turns over up to 38 rooms a shift.
  • A slippery slope of subcontracting. In the past year, the Hyatt at Olive 8 has used more temporary, subcontracted workers, a precedent that can threaten full-time jobs.
  • Workers want their say. Workers at the Grand Hyatt Seattle and the Hyatt at Olive 8 have called on the hotels’ owner, Richard Hedreen, to give them a fair process to decide for themselves whether they want a union. This is a process that Hyatt agrees will be implemented if and when Mr. Hedreen gives the OK. So far Mr. Hedreen has refused.

Discussion at AESA 2015 Business Meeting

At the AESA 2015 business meeting this afternoon in, ironically, San Antonio’s Grand Hyatt, I made the motion that “AESA honor the UNITE HERE Local 8 boycott and not hold its 2016 meeting at the Grand Hyatt Seattle.”

There was a long and vigorous discussion of the issue, with many members stating their support of the motion and others offering supportive sentiments for the Grand Hyatt Seattle workers, but arguing against the boycott because of the financial implications for AESA (which, because of contract provisions, would be on the hook for over $80,000 if they canceled).

After a long debate, the members in attendance voted to refer the boycott motion back to the Executive Council of AESA, thus stopping the discussion among the general membership and by-passing an up-or-down vote on the motion.

Previously, AESA members had participated in a straw poll on honoring the UNITE HERE Local 8 boycott, with the anti-boycott position winning by a slim margin, although fewer than 100 members participated in the poll.

Read more about the boycotts of Grand Hyatt Seattle here:

Attorneys honor Hyatt boycott rather than attend Bar awards | October 4, 2013
The Stand
Hotel Workers Say: Boycott Hyatt! | August 30, 2013
Seattle Gay News
Update! Hyatt Hotel Owners Respond to Boycott | August 30, 2013
The Stranger
Union activists call for boycott of 2 Seattle Hyatt hotels | August 28, 2013
The Seattle Times
Hyatt workers urge boycott of Seattle hotels | August 28, 2013
The Stand
Workers Call for Boycott on Two Seattle Hyatts | August 27, 2013
The Stranger