labor action update

(At Roger William’s own First Baptist Church in Providence, RI) I owe an update on the situation that I reported yesterday. I am attending the American Democracy Project meeting, which is taking place in the Westin Hotel under a union boycott. I have spoken at some length to three union organizers (one of whom had also read my blog post) and several Providence-based colleagues who are well informed about the situation. I attended a union rally at 7 am. I then crossed the picket line and moderated a plenary discussion at which colleagues addressed how to handle such controversial issues. Union leaders attended–as they had every right to do–and answered questions from the floor. In the afternoon, I marched on the picket line. I have also spoken separately with many fellow ADP colleagues and participated in a breakout session devoted to the labor dispute.

For what it’s worth, my views are:

    1. The workers are being treated with gross injustice, and illegally.

    2. When you cross a picket line, you are taking a position and having an effect. The effect in this case is favorable to the hotel’s owners and damaging to the union.

    3. I happen to have moved my own room to a different hotel, but that by no means gives me clean hands, because the ADP would lose its deposit unless a minimum number of participants stayed at the Westin. I am in support of the ADP, and I am attending the conference. Thus I am basically free-riding on my colleagues who stay in the Westin. There is no moral difference between me and them, although I am glad that some of us moved our business away.

    4. I continue to believe that ADP should not have to cancel the meeting and lose its deposit. Union leaders are correct to say that people must sacrifice rather than participate in unjust situations. But the sacrifice in ADP’s case might well be fatal, and justice does not demand that the ADP close down. All pro-democracy organizations are struggling to survive in the current climate.

Conservative critics of higher education–and especially of “civic engagement” projects–might assume that participants at an ADP conference would be automatically and reflexively pro-union. What I actually perceive is a lot of deliberation and openness to diverse ideological perspectives. Conferees know that a labor dispute is a complicated business–it can cause collateral damage to third parties, for example. And we have come to this conference under all kinds of complex circumstances, not having individually chosen or paid to attend.

But none of that erases the individual obligation to make a decision. If you attend the ADP conference at the Westin, you have decided to cross a picket line. No amount of rumination on complexities and analogies negates that complicity. Yes, the hotel management and various other parties have perspectives that one can listen to. Yes, you should study and respect libertarian and other forms of conservative thought. But in the end, you have to decide. You can’t take refuge in intellectual neutrality or in the other work you do–like educating young people, or creating open spaces for democratic dialog. A commitment to teach democracy back on your own campus doesn’t make things any better for Local 217 of UNITE HERE in Providence. You own what you do–it’s as simple as that.

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