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New venue sought for Gala event

Labor dispute at Westin prompts student concern

Amid concerns over labor disputes at the currently scheduled Gala location, and after a prolonged series of meetings Tuesday, the event's organizers and the Student Labor Alliance agreed to search for a new venue, while educating students about the controversy surrounding the currently scheduled location.

With tickets to the Gala going on sale Wednesday, members of the SLA had cautioned that if the event's organizers failed to heed their warnings about the contentious choice of venue, this year's guests will likely arrive at the dance to find a picket line of hotel workers.

The annual formal event is scheduled by the Class Board and Key Society for Saturday, April 17, at the Westin Providence hotel downtown. But workers at the Westin are calling for a community boycott of the hotel due to grievances including recent wage and benefit cuts and large increases in workers' health care costs.

At a meeting that ended at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, SLA members finally got the chance to sit down with members of the Class Board to hash out a tentative agreement that was more sensitive to the labor dispute at the Westin. It was an opportunity they had been seeking since they learned of the choice of venue a week ago.

Neil Parikh '11, the 2011 Class Coordinating Board president who e-mailed students on Tuesday to inform them of the ticket sales, said that he and the events' other organizers did not know about the hotel's labor issues until they heard from SLA late last week.

"We're going to do everything we can between the two groups to find another venue," SLA member Sam Adler-Bell '12 said after the meeting, adding that his group will make use of contacts at other hotels and convention centers they have through their union affiliations. "If we can't find another venue, we're going to do everything in our power to make sure people know what's going on."

SLA members will accompany ticket sellers starting Wednesday morning at J. Walter Wilson to inform guests of workers' grievances. Adler-Bell said both groups agreed that there was a need to fully inform students of the labor dispute before they bought tickets.

"We're not going to be anti-Gala," he said. "We're just going to be there educating people."

The late-night summit followed a meeting Tuesday afternoon between members of the SLA and Director of Student Activities Phil O'Hara '55. O'Hara also met separately with members of the Class Board — which he advises — and the Key Society after hearing SLA's concerns, and said he also intends to call the hotel's director of human resources to gather more information.

Aubrie Ramsay, a Westin employee who attended the meeting with O'Hara and the SLA, told O'Hara at the meeting that the boycott, now in its third week, is "just beginning." She said workers have been asking groups not to stay at the hotel and have been requesting that members of the community hold their events elsewhere in order for the boycott to succeed.

If the Gala is held at the Westin, Ramsay promised, guests will be faced with the decision of whether to join the picket line or cross it. And if they cross it, she said, they will have to listen to the picketers from outside.

Prominent community figures have already taken sides — last month, John Lombardi, Democratic city councilman and candidate for mayor of Providence, announced he would cancel a fundraiser scheduled for later this month in response to the union's call for a boycott.

The hotel is owned by the Cranston-based Procaccianti Group. Representatives of the Westin Hotel and Procaccianti Group did not return e-mails and phone calls Tuesday afternoon.

"Everyone wants this to be a successful event," Adler-Bell said at the end of the afternoon meeting with O'Hara. "The Gala is not going to be a successful event if it's held at the Westin. People are going to have to cross picket lines."

At the end of Tuesday's late-night discussions, Adler-Bell was confident another venue would be found.

"When we find another location, (the Gala's organizers) will make a public announcement about why we won't be going to the Westin," he said. "We have to find another venue."

But Parikh said earlier Tuesday afternoon that finding an alternative to the Westin is unlikely. He said that after looking into over a dozen venues in and around the state, the organizers found no other sites in their price range that were available for the night.

The group has already paid a $5,000 deposit to the Westin for the Gala, which usually costs a little more than $30,000 totally, according to Key Society President Camilla Spinola '10. The group's organizers were not sure whether the deposit is refundable. Parikh said it would be "something for the lawyers to handle" if need be.

Salsa Ahmed '11, the 2011 Class Board's secretary, said ultimately students may have to decide on their own whether they are comfortable attending in light of the picketing. She said the organizers plan to visit the Westin this week to address security concerns.

Ahmed said she anticipates demand will still be high enough to sell out the Gala, a 14-year Brown tradition, especially because the Westin holds only 900 guests, while most previous locations have held well over 1,000.

Coming out of their meeting at almost midnight, both sides seemed satisfied with the progress they made in tweaking the plan for the Gala.

"We all really want it to be an amicable situation," Parikh said. "It's been a very long day."

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