News analysis | Union propels HEI protests

The sit-in held by Yale’s Undergraduate Organizing Committee last month was just one of a dozen nationwide efforts to protest university investments in a hotel company. But all of the campaigns, though led by students, originated from the same place: a union, UNITE HERE.

Students at Yale and other universities across the country are staging sit-ins, sending letters and holding demonstrations as part of nationwide student-led protest against alleged unethical investments in hotel company HEI Hotels & Resorts. Workers at HEI’s California Hilton-Long Beach hotel claim the company is preventing unionization. But what makes this effort even more unusual is that the students did not start the campaign as a group — the force that drew them together and in many ways continues to direct their actions is UNITE HERE, the parent organization of Yale unions Local 34 and Local 35.

Over the past three months, student actions have started to coalesce on at least 10 different campuses. Using demonstrations at other schools as models, the UOC is presently planning a “visible, on-campus HEI-related action” that will take place before the end of the semester, according to an e-mail message circulated among UOC members.

Students and workers at the hotel say HEI management subjects its workers to poor working conditions, disregards employee work-related health problems and pressures workers not to unionize. In a statement, HEI said the accusations are “wholly unfounded.”

HEI spokesman Jess Petitt said HEI has noticed the recent upsurge in student involvement in the campaign, which he said “exploded” on college campuses.

And UNITE HERE has been vital to the growing campaign.

“We have no idea what HEI is thinking or what’s happening to hotel workers,” said Johnny Bowman, a Harvard University sophomore who is a member of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement. “We only know that through the union.”

Starting the campaign

The union’s relationship with the college students involved in the campaign dates back to this summer, when the union hired students for paid internships. The students, working with different local unions across the country, heard about HEI workers’ conditions from visiting workers and researched the company’s history and investors for the union.

Interns who had come to the union from about 10 schools — including Yale — have since used the information to start their own campaigns, said Judy Esber, a UNITE HERE community organizer in frequent contact with students about the campaign.

As the UOC, led by three Yale students who interned at UNITE HERE, started its campaign, the union has provided key resources to students. For instance, the union paid to transport Hilton workers to universities, including Yale, to talk about alleged worsening hotel conditions.

Esber, who spoke on behalf of the union, said UNITE HERE has been instrumental in connecting students with the workers, adding that the campaign is “really up to the students and workers.”

The union also gave students tax forms to substantiate student suspicions about Yale’s investments in HEI, said Allen Sanchez ’10, a UOC member and one of the interns at UNITE HERE.

According to HEI’s U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission tax forms provided to the News by the UOC, the Yale Investments Office and the 5C Corporation, a non-profit organization managed by Yale, have invested at least $121 million in three HEI management funds since 2004.

The forms list the Investments Office and 5c as “beneficial owners” of these three funds, which entails ownership of at least 10 percent of the funds’ securities, said John Heiney, a spokesman for SEC. The forms state that the three funds together have over $1.2 billion in securities.

Officials at HEI declined to comment on investor identities. The Yale Investments Office has a policy of not commenting on investment holdings.

Uniting the students

Although UNITE HERE facilitates student communication, students themselves lead much of the campaign, said Natalie Kelly, a University of Pennsylvania senior who is a leader of Penn’s Student Labor Action Project.

The student groups are focusing on their own schools first, partly because the groups are at different development stages, added Eric Augenbraun, a Penn junior who is a member of SLAP.

“At this point, we don’t have any coordinated action,” he said. “But it’s definitely a possibility.”

Yet signs of coordinated action among the schools have occurred already.

After receiving a Facebook message from the “HEIst for Justice” group, students across the nation called HEI management last week to express concerns about the alleged interrogation of hotel worker Elizabeth Martinez by Hilton hotel managers. Martinez had traveled to Harvard and Brown universities to discuss what she called the hotel’s poor labor relations.

“It was a big day for solidarity action,” said Andrew Wolf, a Cornell University junior who is a member of Cornell’s Organization for Labor Action.

The Facebook group, which now has 125 members, was created by Esber — a worker at UNITE HERE.


  • Alum

    The tone of this article suggests that UNITE HERE's support for student activism is some kind of scandal (see, e.g., the last sentence). That's totally unjustified and should be embarrassing for the YDN.

    Would it be scandalous to learn that the student group that successfully pressured Yale to divest from Sudan was working in concert with the national STAND organization, and sibling chapters around the country?

    All that's driving the scandalous tone of Carol Te and Victor Zapana's article, then, is a special skepticism of labor unions. It's fine if they personally are wary of people who spend their lives fighting for better conditions for working class people - from better wages, to better healthcare, to better workplace safety. But that rightly controversial opinion shouldn't merit a phony exposé in the news section of a newspaper.

  • Zach

    Some "analysis." This is a total failure to engage the movement's actual critique. The YDN is instead wallowing in very transparent red-baiting. God forbid student labor activists should be understood as autonomous and intelligent people fully capable of making alliances with unions on their own terms. Once again we have the campus media seeing John Wilhelm behind every corner instead of actually investigating, say, the university's investments or something equally "incidental".

  • Alum

    I applaud the UOC and their allies on other campuses for taking a stand in solidarity with working people. Though many Yalies clearly feel otherwise, I firmly believe that the long history of organizing in New Haven, led by Locals 34, 35 and GESO, have transformed our university for the better. UNITE HERE is one of the truly progressive organizations we have -- fighting for basic things like decent wages, health care and immigrant rights.

  • Spherical Cow

    Zach, I agree completely, but I doubt it's personal opinion that is influencing this "skepticism." Rather, I think it's probably a need to find the "controversial" side of any story. It is, after all, an interesting story, i.e., this is not an isolated incident, it is part of a larger movement, of unions, of college students.

    Especailly given Yale's supposed liberalism, it is shocking that unions are presented in this insidious light.

    I'm sure that pro-life groups at Yale support the agenda of the pro-life movement. Or religious groups, the Federalist Society …

    Honestly, it's part of a larger skepticism at Yale of movement politics and activism as an effective vehicle of social change. Few at Yale object to higher wages, health care, and good working conditions: but they seem to have bought the conservative argument over the 40 years that activism is somehow detrimental to a law and order society in which only the electoral process is an appropriate venue for change.

    This is nowhere more evident than the fact that nearly all Yalies supported Obama, Obama support the "card check" Employee Free Choice Act, and yet students complaied about the the UOC's relationship with the hospital uniov when it was trying to do just that: get a card check when a secret ballot was no longer feasible due to active anti-union activities on the part of the hospital.

    Given that Yale's grad school students are more activist, in general, than it's undergrads, perhaps more cross-over would be beneficial …

  • Paul

    Suggesting that Yale shows leadership on ethical investment is revisionist history at best. It ignores the University's staunch opposition to divestment from Corrections Corporation of America, for example. Yale divested from South Africa, and the Sudan, after long, sustained campaigns by campus activists that were, yes, coordinated and informed by national efforts to those same ends; in no way has Yale ever eagerly embraced ethical investment and must always be led to watch what its money does.

  • Grapevine

    Some education our fellow students are receiving! Protesting Yale investments based on multiple hearsay? Let's hope they aren't Yale Law students.

    Bowman candidly admits he has no first-hand information -- only what the union told him. The union says it got its information from summer interns. The summer interns claim to have heard it from HEI workers. There may be some truth in what the workers are saying or they may be making it up to advance the union's cause or their own personal agendas.

    I recall some intelligent people in Congress being misled into voting to go to war against Iraq based on evidence that initially appeared to be more specific and reliable than the general allegations that we have heard about HEI.

    Rather than waste time with sit-ins based on information heard through the grapevine, we should see what the legal system has to say about HEI's alleged mistreatment of its workers.

  • What a dumb idea

    Another tactic by the unions to use students for political leverage. When will Yale students wake up and realize that they are being used by UNITE-HERE to advance the agenda of UNITE-HERE management?

  • students care about labor issues too

    it only makes perfect sense for student labor activists to partner with labor unions on a campaign such as this one. the uoc's partnership with unite-here is evidence of networking between ideologically-aligned activist groups, and doesn't even begin to approach some sort of union puppetry.

    if anything, the necessity of the uoc's partnership with unite-here reveals the difficulties of researching yale's endowment. yale's investments shouldn't be so opaque that professional union researchers are needed to expose unethical investments.

  • Bob

    It always shocks me that Yale's students fail to understand that every dollar that's spent padding the 34/35 contracts is a dollar that can't be spent on faculty, facilities, or student aid.

  • RE: Bob


    Funny--it always shocks me that some of Yale's students fail to understand that every dollar spent on administrator salaries, benefits, expense accounts, and living allowances is a dollar that can't be spent on faculty, facilities, or student aid.

    -David Swensen (investment office): $2.7 million
    -Dean Takahashi (investment office): $1.7 million
    -David J. Leffell (med school): $1.2 million
    Marna Borgstrom (YNHH Pres/CEO): $1.1 million
    -President Levin: $955,407

    I don't honestly care that Swensen makes almost $3 million. If he needs or deserves that in some way…whatever. I can't personally imagine what I would do with that much money, but whatever. Market forces, yada yada. I get why he's paid that much.

    But the idea that you would target "padding" of 34/35 contracts--AKA, the health insurance and pension funds of working people in New Haven--is just absurd. Look elsewhere if you think we're scraping for cash (which we're not)--there's plenty of places to look. Look at expensive parties Yale throws, for its alumni and its students. Look at the castles we live in. Look at the twenty free T shirts I have in my drawer. Or, well, you could look at executive compensation. Just since you started on worker pay.

  • Bob

    @ #10

    Swensen is grossly underpaid - if he wanted to start a hedge fund, even in the current climate, he could make 50-100x of what he does at Yale - he does it because he really enjoys it (and he's 100% as much of a "working person") as any 34/35 member, likely much more so. 34/35 are grossly overpaid, given what they do - evidence for this is obvious - they need to have state laws that prohibit fair and free negotiation, and mandate monopoly union membership, in order to maintain their cartel pricing.

    There's a reason virtually no non-Yale-connected businesses can thrive in New Haven - the inflated rates paid to Yale unions have hopelessly distorted the labor market. Yale can't move, so it is forced by law to pay the extortion payments. Other businesses can, and have.

  • so many lies…

    I wonder how many of these informations are true and how many are blown up lies? Im surpriced that Union will go out of their way to spread lies and deciet just to represent the employees of the hotel. It would be really nice if these unions are really out there to protect us hotel workers and not just after our money (dues). I used to look up at Unions before, but with my experience now, with all the lies and misinformations they are spreading to us and our guest, I am now scared to be part of a union!

  • Anon

    Ruexben is awesome.