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Harvard Students, HEI Hotel Workers Score Mutual Victory

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David MobergAs undergraduate students at Harvard, Devi Lockwood and Jia Hui Lee would typically have little reason to know Rosa de la Rosa or Heather Nichols, who work just a few miles from Harvard Yard cleaning guest rooms and staffing the front desk, respectively, at Le Meridien Hotel.

But Lockwood and Lee, overcoming the classic town-gown social divide, have successfully joined with fellow students in the school’s Studet-Labor Action Movement to win a major victory that may help Rosa and Nichols win a union to help change what they describe as appalling working conditions at the hotel.

After several years of campaigning and following student victories at Yale, Brown, Vanderbilt, Princeton and other elite schools, Harvard students persuaded university authorities to review their investment in HEI, a owner and operator of hotels. HEI raises investments primarily from prestigious university funds, then strips down costs and re-sells the hotels at what is promised to be a hefty profit. Harvard has invested around $70 million in HEI, according to researchers with UNITE HERE, the union organizing Le Meridien and other HEI workers, making it HEI’s third largest financial backer.

HEI’s drive for efficiency, profit, and a high price when it flips the hotel leads to overwork, poor pay, abusive treatment and arbitrary supervision of workers like Rosa, 57, and Nichols, 23. “One big reason I want a union is how they treat people–and the pay,” Rosa said. “There are a lot of people being overworked, sometimes given the work of three  people. Then sometimes they don’t give people enough work. They charge a lot for health and dental insurance. I have to pay for rent and food, and there’s just not much money left.”

“One thing our hotel is notorious for is its unclear descriptions of jobs,” Nichols said. “We have job descriptions, but they also say that the job includes anything else management decides. They’ve cut so many people you’re left doing six or seven jobs. It can be exhausting and frustrating.” Compared to her previous hotel job, the pay is low: $13.75 an hour vs. $16 an hour at a locally owned hotel. And compared to the previous management under Hilton, Rosa said, raises are rare and skimpy. Nichols can’t afford the insurance, she said, nor her uninsured medical expenses. “I have a serious illness,” she said. “I have to spend $400 a month on medicine, but I can’t afford it, so I’m continually tired, sick, bleeding and dizzy. It’s frustrating and debilitating.”

Adding to the misery, at first she was hired part-time, then shifted to 40 hours without any benefits of full-time work, and now her hours of work fluctuate. “They play games,” she said about her supervisors, who play “power trips” with workers and ignore them or speak rudely to them. “They just don’t care—don’t care if service is good, don’t care if employees are happy.”

Back at Harvard, students met HEI workers and learned about both their lives and the university’s involvement as part owner.

“There’s a hotel down the road, Le Meridien, and Harvard owns more than 10 percent,” Lockwood, a sophomore who just recently became involved with SLAM, said. “The working conditions are horrific. One man who worked in the kitchen, his hours were so badly scheduled he would have to leave his child around seven years old home alone. These are people’s lives, and as students we’re implicated in what the university does. It’s time for Harvard to live up to its responsibilities.”

That’s the gist of the message Lockwood delivered to Harvard President Drew Faust on March 26, when she signed up for the once-a-semester opportunity for students to talk with the school’s leader. She was so nervous she remembers few details of the meeting, except that Faust was “diplomatic,” and that as Lockwood left,  she gave the president her pin with a slash mark through HEI.

On March 31, Faust’s assistant sent her an e-mail that Harvard Management Company decided not to invest in HEI in the future, a big blow to the private equity firm’s anticipated solicitation of a new round of funds this year. Unlike authorities at Brown, however, which linked its decision not to invest further to HEI labor practices, Harvard said its decision was based on HEI’s portfolio and strategy, “not on concerns about HEI’s practices.”

The same day Lockwood met with Faust, Lee joined with a delegation of HEI workers, who presented a petition for a fair process of union recognition signed by more than 70 percent of Le Meridien workers.

A senior who had been involved with SLAM for three years and had learned how working together students could make the world better, Lee was surprised at how the hotel manager treated the employees and the “power inequalities” in the workplace. At first the manager retreated into his office, then made some phone calls, and came back out but refused to accept the petitions, all the while acting “very confrontational.”

“The workers feel empowered and inspired by the actions students are willing to take,” says Leigh Shelton, a researcher with UNITE HERE on the HEI campaign. “It helps them keep going to know they have the support and a point of pressure.”

HEI may be feeling pressure not only from the withdrawal of its major investors but also from dozens of wage and hour violations and complaints from the National Labor Relations Board. UNITE HERE is increasing the number of hotels being organized and bargaining at a Hollywood HEI property, where local economic development regulations kept management neutral. And more campaigns are developing at universities like Michigan, Notre Dame and Chicago, says UNITE HERE researcher Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer.

“In this country, the first thing is the money,” housekeeper Rosa said of the latest campus interruption of investment flowing to HEI. “So a shift in investment could make the difference. Hopefully, by getting the money out, it will help the workers to change things.” And that’s what both the workers and students want.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 11, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.


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