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.

Allyship

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.

 

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