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.

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