Last fall, the Brown Student Labor Alliance learned of Brown's investment in HEI Hotels and Resorts, the nation's seventh-largest hotel management company. We were compelled to speak out after we heard stories from workers about conditions in HEI hotels, as well as HEI's anti-union activity.
For over a year, students organizing around this issue have approached committee after committee, and without fail, the University has passed the responsibility (and the blame) along to the next administrative body. No one in the administration has taken any semblance of action, nor owned up to Brown's complicity in the injustices committed by HEI.
The University's Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy — the advisory body responsible for investigating the ethical implications of Brown's investments — dismissed our claims as outside their purview. Kicked back to the administration, we were once again told we were looking in the wrong place. What will it take to make the University care about the consequences of its investment decisions?
HEI's business model involves maximizing profits by laying off workers and forcing the remaining workforce to shoulder the additional workload. Hotel housekeeping, already one of the most physically exhausting professions in America, is particularly demanding at HEI hotels, which have experimented with requiring housekeepers to clean up to 32 rooms a day. Virginia Portillo, a housekeeper at the HEI Sheraton Crystal City, takes painkillers every day just to perform her job.
In October 2008, Elizabeth Martinez, a waitress at the HEI-owned Long Beach Hilton, came to Brown to speak about her work experience. She described how HEI pays poverty-level wages (a recent study revealed the median yearly gross earnings for workers at Martinez's hotel were $19,240, well below the annual income needed to afford basic necessities). She also told students how she had to work unpaid through breaks just to get all the work done.
On her return to work, the general manager and human resources manager brought her into an office and interrogated her for two hours. Handing her a copy of The Herald, the managers asked Martinez whether or not she stood behind the statements she made to students. In spite of her fear that she would be fired, Martinez reaffirmed that she stood behind the statements she had made to Brown students.
Hernan Romero, a worker at the restaurant in the Sheraton Crystal City, was laid off for months along with many of his coworkers, ostensibly for economic reasons even though the hotel hired temporary workers to keep up with business. After going on a speaking tour of universities to discuss HEI's treatment of workers, Hernan was rehired by the hotel, but as a housekeeper. Despite having accumulated experience and skills while working in the restaurant, Hernan was given a job with harder work and lower pay. And yet he still speaks out.
Others have been even less fortunate: Ferdi Lazo, an employee at the same hotel, was fired for being late on one occasion, only days after leading a delegation protesting layoffs and supply shortages. He has not yet been rehired. The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating charges of illegal anti-union activity at the HEI Sheraton Crystal City.
Poor working conditions as well as the intimidation of pro-union employees have prompted workers to call for boycotts of the two HEI hotels. "For over a year, we have struggled to address our concerns with the managers at the hotel and let them know that we want them to agree to a fair process that will allow us, the workers, to decide to join a union in a manner free of intimidation and harassment," said Martinez. "Calling for a boycott is not an easy decision for us to make, but we have tried all other options and this is the only one left."
As students concerned about the livelihood of HEI hotel workers, we are asking the University to respect the demands of the workers and withdraw our investment from the company unless HEI agrees to allow its workers to decide whether or not to unionize in a free and fair manner. We call on all students who pride themselves on their social engagement and commitment to justice to pressure the University into making positive change, here and now.
Idealistic as we may be, we understand that we live in a society where privately funded institutions, like Brown, depend upon the expansion of capital to maintain viability and continue to provide their invaluable service. Although some of our personal convictions might dictate otherwise, we are not calling for the fundamental reorganization of the financial system Brown depends upon.
What we are asking for, now, is that the University resists the impulse engendered by our economic system to subordinate all its professed values — those for the dignified and humane treatment of people — to the pursuit of profit. If HEI workers are willing to risk their livelihoods by speaking out, then surely Brown should be able to muster up some of the same courage.
If the administration refuses to consider the ethical implications of its investments, which could vastly improve the daily lives and life prospects of thousands of workers, it affirms that the maximization of profit takes priority over a commitment to the basic human values it publicly espouses. Fundamentally, it will have failed.
Mark Morales '10 and Alex Campbell '10 are going back to Ruth's office again soon.