Should Consumers Take Sides in Labour Disputes?

Should individuals or groups stay away from hotels (or other businesses) in the midst of labour disputes?

The Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association is currently struggling with that issue — not as an abstract ethical question, but as a practical one. Basically, the hotel at which they were planning to hold their annual meeting this year (the Westin St. Francis, in San Francisco) is currently subject to a boycott being promoted by Local 2 of the union Unite Here. The union is not on strike, though they’re in the middle of negotiations that apparently are not going well. (See details, including the Association’s compromise decision, here: Statement on the Labor Dispute at the 2010 Conference Hotel.)

The situation faced by the APA raises the more general question: should associations like the APA, or consumers more generally, comply with this kind of union-organized boycott, either of a hotel or of another kind of business? Here are a few points to consider:

1. The first thing to note is that, in going along with the boycott, the APA would effectively be choosing sides in this labour dispute. And to take a side means determining (or assuming) that one side is in the right, and the other is in the wrong. But in a labour dispute, the most natural assumption for an outsider is to assume that the two sides simply want different things, and are engaged in what is (roughly) a zero-sum game: the union wants more (more money, better benefits, and/or more job security) while management wants either the status quo or to provide less of one or more of those things.

2. It’s worth being clear about what the role of unions is. Unions are a mechanism of collective action. They are a way for labour to band together for more efficient and effective bargaining in the sale of their labour; this is in parallel to the way that equity investors (i.e., shareholders) band together to hire managers to (among other things) buy labour on their behalf. So a union is a way to further the interests of its members. (I’ve benefited substantially, for instance, from my membership in my university’s Faculty Association.)

3. The APA faces this issue because at least some of its members take it as obvious that the Association should respect the boycott. The impulse to side with the union, here, might be grounded in a presumption that the union is in the right — perhaps that unions always or typically are in the right. Part of that might be rooted in particular philosophical points of view about economic justice. But certainly it’s a point of view that accords nicely with a significant theme in popular culture. The general impression given in popular culture is that workers are powerless and corporations are powerful. They make movies about workers bravely uniting against a common, heartless enemy. They don’t make movies about shareholders banding together to fight Big Labour.

4. It matters that the decision maker in this case, the APA, is an association, rather than an individual. Being an association complicates things in two ways. First, associations often have rules and policies, including sometimes foundational documents (a constitution or a set of by-laws), that to a certain extent guide (and sometimes determine) their behaviour. (The APA, for example, has a policy of only meeting at unionized hotels, though whether that policy applies to the current situation is a matter of interpretation.) Secondly, an association has members, who in many cases need to be consulted and asked for input. Ethical decision making for associations, then, takes on some of the trappings of political decision making (broadly understood).

5. For some people, the decision to support a union in its boycott will be easy, because their own preferences make it so. If you are an ardent supporter of labour movements, generally — if you take the successes of a union as your own successes, the way you might the successes of a friend or family member — then supporting such a boycott might seem a no-brainer. It doesn’t necessarily require any restraint on your part. If, on the other hand, you are neutral or even antagonistic to unions generally, then the boycott presents you with an ethical dilemma. Assuming (as is the case for the APA) that you already have plans in place that involve using the hotel in question, then changing those plans means accepting some inconvenience, and maybe even significant expense. Normally, in the marketplace, we look to buy those things (and only those things) that meet our needs, and satisfy our preferences. Complying with a boycott may imply accepting a limitation on the pursuit of what’s in your best interest. That, in a sense, is the hallmark of ethically-significant issues: they put constraints on the pursuit of what is most obviously in our best interest (narrowly construed).

6. Assuming that you neither a) assume that unions are always right, nor b) have a natural passion for unions and their causes (either of which might make the decision trivial for you) you need to make a decision about whether the union’s case is morally compelling. The problem, of course, is that the relevant information is going to be hard to acquire. Accurate information is particularly hard to come by in the context of labour conflicts, which are characterized by dissimulation, exaggeration, and bluffing. Individual consumers, limited as they inevitably are in their information-gathering capacities, are going to find it incredibly difficult to sort through the labour equivalent of a “he said, she said” dispute. It may well be that this is among the more difficult domains in which consumers can attempt to engage in ethical consumerism.

Thanks to Matt for alerting me to this story.

3 comments so far

  1. Ms. Law on

    If these boycotts would in any way affect the management’s service towards their customers, then one can’t blame if customers choose other establishment. This act may be interpreted as taking sides.

  2. Anonymous on

    It seems to me that crossing picket lines and/or giving the hotel company money is also, “taking sides”.

    What side is APA going to take? Billion dollar corporations or hotel workers that are probably barely making ends meet?

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    Yes, crossing picket line or giving the hotel money would count as taking sides. The question remains whether anyone should.

    As for what the APA ended up doing, that info is in the link above.

    Note also, re you final comment, 2 points:
    1) Being poor doesn’t automatically make you right in a dispute, I would think;
    2) Unions don’t always represent their members well. So lending support to the Union doesn’t automatically mean helping its members.


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