Undergraduate Organizing Committee: Yale should pressure HEI to change policies

Last week, students in the Undergraduate Organizing Committee collected almost 300 valentines for President Levin. On each one, students expressed their love for Yale and their support for workers at HEI Hotels & Resorts, in which Yale is a major investor.

“I love Yale because [insert anything here, such as ‘I just had a conversation about the intricacies of the subjunctive’], but I would love Yale more if it would support the rights of HEI Hotel workers to organize free from employer intimidation.” The message was clear: We are grateful to be Yale students, but we believe the Yale community must respect the rights of workers, especially those whose work generates profit for our school.

Hotel housekeepers across the country have workloads that cause them serious injury. Required to clean 15 or more rooms a day, housekeepers suffer from serious back, knee, shoulder and wrist injuries. In a recent survey conducted by Unite Here, of more than 600 hotel housekeepers in the United States and Canada, 91 percent said that they have suffered work-related pain. Of those who reported workplace pain, 77 percent said their workplace pain interfered with routine activities, two out of every three workers visited their doctor to deal with workplace pain, and 66 percent took pain medication just to work enough to achieve their daily quota.

Few housekeepers can afford the health care they desperately need. One option open to them and their colleagues at the hotels where they work is to exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively. Once they win union recognition, the employees have a powerful tool in the fight to win a living wage and affordable health care, not to mention reasonable workloads that do not cause serious chronic injuries.

HEI is a hotel management company that buys existing hotels, cuts operating costs and sells the hotels 10 years later, profiting from increases in real estate value. Yale is a major private investor in HEI, having invested over $119 million in the company, according to SEC documents. For workers in HEI-owned hotels, “cut operating costs” means increased workloads, which for housekeepers means more stress on the job and a higher risk of getting hurt, in some cases for reduced wages and cut benefits. These employees, who often have little individual bargaining power, formal education or proficiency in English, are left vulnerable to abuse of their rights.

Workers at HEI hotels in San Francisco and Los Angeles are standing up for these reasons. Under law, managers are technically required to respect workers’ right to organize, yet in practice such protections are weak and rarely enforced. HEI has fired several pro-union workers in San Francisco, including one who traveled last semester to meet with students at other universities invested in HEI. In Los Angeles, a worker who visited campuses was subjected to a nearly two-hour interrogation by management upon her return. HEI has repeatedly refused to respect workers’ calls for a process to choose whether to sign up with the union without fear of intimidation or reprisal.

The Yale endowment should invest in companies that create true value for society, not in companies that increase workloads to dangerous levels. Yale’s investments have social and environmental impacts that affect both the investment’s rate of return and the University’s reputation. The Investments Office needs to engage the management of HEI and make a clear public statement opposing the intimidation and unfair treatment of the workers and supporting their right to organize.

The students in the UOC believe that we as a community need to take responsibility for the investments that make Yale what it is. We presented our case to the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility and are hopeful that an ongoing dialogue with them will be productive. In working to support the rights of hotel workers at HEI, we also hope to uphold the standards of this institution.

Hans Schoenburg and Rebecca Eisenbrey are members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee. They are, respectively, a junior in Morse College and a senior in Timothy Dwight College.

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