Saturday, October 24, 2015

Labor Dispute at the AFS Conference 2015

    I’m just back from the annual conference of the American Folklore Society (AFS), that took place this year in Long Beach, California. Every year the Society books the conference in a mid-sized city with more or less affordable accommodations in a hotel with conference rooms or a nearby conference center large enough to hold nearly a thousand people. An unusual aspect of this year’s conference was that our hotel workers were involved in a labor dispute with management. As a result, some of our members stayed away from the hotel, and others from the conference altogether. I might have done so too, but last year I was elected a member of our Executive Board, and so in addition to my rank-and-file membership I am now responsible as a trustee of the Society as a whole.
    When our AFS Board met last spring, our Executive Director presented us with the news of the labor dispute and asked us to consider whether we wanted the Society to pull out of the conference. There was no strike because the dispute was not between a union and management; rather, the dispute was over the method by which workers would vote to decide whether to be represented by a union. Most, if not all of us, were sympathetic with labor in this dispute; however, we were told that if AFS withdrew from this hotel, our Society would face several problems. First, we would be unable to book another suitable hotel at this time within the Los Angeles area; second, breaking our legal contract with the hotel would cost the Society a penalty of $100,000, which would amount to more than the Society’s annual income from member dues and deal a significant blow to our sustainability. The Executive Director recommended that we continue with plans to hold the conference at that hotel, but try to intervene to help settle the dispute, and also hold activities in connection with the conference that might educate the participants, as well as our members, in labor history and expressive culture. This recommendation carried, with only one vote against. I decided that my responsibilities as a Board member to the Society in this case outweighed my qualms and joined in the affirmative vote.
    As I anticipated, the union and management ignored our efforts to mediate, while the union attempted to enlist support from our membership. Some events were held outside the hotel, and a delegation from our Society went to meet with the chief officer of the hotel to present their views on behalf of the workers. In gratitude, the union called off its daily, hour-long and quite vocal protests outside the hotel, which could have interfered with our conference presentations. Yet, predictably, no progress was made in the labor dispute.
    In a later post I will say some things about the conference itself. One of its themes was “ecologies,” and some of the presentations on that theme interested me. I presented on a panel concerned with “sensory ecologies” — the ecological systems involving expressive culture and the senses—and offered a much-abbreviated version of the keynote on a sound ecology that I presented at both the Canadian Society for Traditional Music last June, and the joint SEM-ICTM forum in Ireland last month.

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