Student labor activists take on hotel chain for practices

Elizabeth Martinez has worked at the Hilton in Long Beach, Calif., for 11 years. She said her job used to be “really a pleasure,” but when HEI Hotels and Resorts bought the hotel four years ago, they laid off many workers and stretched the remaining staff thin.

Now workers scramble to complete the work of multiple people, she said, sometimes working unpaid during their lunch breaks so they can finish on time.

“I’m working by myself a lot of times,” said Martinez, who waits tables at the hotel restaurant for minimum wage. “I’m basically running to get the job done.”

As part of the Brown Student Labor Alliance’s campaign to raise awareness of HEI’s mistreatment of its workers, Martinez told her story to a moderate turnout of students and community members Monday night in MacMillan 115.

Over the past week, the SLA has flooded the campus with posters and set up tables on the Main Green to inform students about the treatment of workers in HEI-owned hotels. On Monday, they hauled two mattresses with sheets and pillows onto the Main Green and invited passers-by to try making the beds to demonstrate the physical toll of changing the sheets of even one bed.

HEI denies the claims of worker mistreatment. “The accusations presented are wholly unfounded and we have received no formal complaints – either from associates or the National Labor Relations Board,” HEI’s public relations office wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “We in fact have a very positive relationship with our associates at the Hilton Long Beach, as evidenced by the very low associate turnover rate at the hotel compared with industry averages.”

SLA member Lily Axelrod ’09 disagreed. “There have been complaints. Perhaps not through the National Labor Relations Board, but as a lot of people know, the National Labor Relations Board, especially under the Bush administration, is generally not very sympathetic to claims from low-wage workers.”

She said the NLRB often takes too long to investigate claims of workers’ rights violations, if it follows up on them at all.

Though the University has not disclosed whether it has invested in HEI – the fastest-growing hotel management company in the United States – the SLA hopes to encourage the administration to use its leverage as a current or potential investor to pressure the company to improve its working conditions.

HEI “receive(s) almost all their investment from university endowments,” SLA’s Will Emmons ’09 said to the crowd on Monday night. “Brown keeps all of its investments a secret. We fit the profile of a school that would be invested in HEI.”

Emmons added that even if the University has not invested, it is still in a good position to pressure the company to change its business practices.

“HEI is very proud of their Ivy League investors,” Becky Fish ’09, a member of SLA, told The Herald. Because Brown is the type of investor that HEI courts, the University could send a powerful statement to the company by refusing to invest unless HEI improves workers’ conditions and allows them to unionize, Fish said.

Over a month ago, the SLA contacted Sandra Seibel, director of Investment Office operations, to find out whether Brown has invested in HEI. She directed them to the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies. SLA members said they have not received a response from ACCRIP.

Tuesday morning a group of SLA members along with Martinez went to the Investment Office to speak about HEI and ask again whether Brown is invested in the company. They did not receive a response but plan to continue pursuing a dialogue with the Investment Office and with ACCRIP, Fish said.

The owners of HEI “aren’t out to have a really great hotel. They’re in it to have high returns,” said Sarah Roberts, a Swarthmore graduate and a research analyst for Unite Here – a union representing unorganized workers in a variety of industries across the country. She said HEI buys hotels with the intention of selling them for a profit after about 10 years. In the meantime, they minimize business costs by cutting staff, hours, benefits and supplies.

Jess Petitt, HEI Corporate Director of Communications, would not comment on whether HEI often downsizes its staff when its buys a hotel but said that the company has no official downsizing policy.

SLA member Lenora Knowles ’11 said she first learned about the working conditions in HEI-owned hotels during the Hotel Workers Rise Up internship with Unite Here, when she worked with employees at the Long Beach Hilton. The movement to raise awareness about HEI is relatively new, she said, but is being spread by students at campuses such as Harvard, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

“We want to know where our money’s going and that it’s invested in responsible companies,” Knowles said.

Though Martinez’s hotel is not unionized, she and other hotel workers are meeting with organizers from the local chapter of Unite Here to learn about their rights as workers. They hope to convince the hotel to allow them to unionize in order to improve their working conditions, she said.

Martinez told The Herald she is committed to fighting for more workers’ rights, but worries about her job security. “I’m very afraid,” she said. “I’m here, I go to marches, I go to delegations, and my voice is always shaking, thinking, ‘They’re going to fire me.’ I need to have a voice and tell to you now, this is not right.”