Robinson-Sweet: Divest from HEI now

Two and a half years ago Jose Landino, an employee of the Long Beach Hilton, came to Yale and spoke to an audience of over 150 students. He came to tell us about how his employer, a hotel management company called HEI, was engaged in a nasty anti-union campaign against its workers. Mr. Landino flew across the country to speak to us because Yale, with an investment of over $120 million in HEI, had the power to change the working conditions for him and hundreds of his co-workers across the country: “The employees of the Long Beach Hilton are suffering a persecution. I come here and ask you for help so that I can go back and tell my workmates that there will be help.”

Two and a half years later Mr. Landino is still overworked, underpaid and without union representation. Unfortunately, Yale’s ongoing investment with HEI has financially fueled a company that does not respect the basic rights of its workers. It is hard to see why this should be the case, seeing as Yale has a clear process for dealing with unethical investments such as HEI.

Members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, in an ongoing campaign for divestment from HEI, followed this process by engaging with the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The UOC presented reports on HEI’s abuses at five separate meetings with the ACIR. In June of 2009 the UOC received an e-mail from the ACIR explaining why they would not be sending a letter to HEI expressing concern with their labor practices. They gave a number of reasons for their inaction, chief among which that there had been no legal complaints filed against the company. To date there have been at least four complaints filed by or on behalf of workers against HEI, including three complaints issued by the National Labor Relations Board’s Office of the General Counsel. In November, a deputy commissioner of the Virginia Workers Compensation Board signed a stipulated order requiring the company and its insurer to pay a worker approximately $10,000 in workers compensation benefits owed to him. As of today, this worker has yet to receive the money.

Now that the ACIR has this damning information, they should act. The committee’s newest excuse is particularly insulting to the hundreds of workers that suffer everyday in HEI hotels. Jonathan Macey, chairman of the ACIR, explained in an open meeting in January that the committee would not feel comfortable singling one company out for practices that are common to many hotel companies. HEI is the only hotel company that Yale is known to invest in and therefore the only case that the ACIR has the opportunity to act on. Mr. Macey’s excuse not only condones worker abuse in the hotel industry but also guts the ACIR of its power to influence the responsibility of Yale’s investments.

The ACIR’s current inaction is particularly embarrassing in light of Brown University’s decision this month not to reinvest in HEI. This peer university has become a leader in ethical investing, a position Yale used to occupy proudly. Mr. Macey’s response to this development was quoted in this paper last week: “Either Brown has information that we don’t have, or I find this to be an extremely perplexing development about what it takes to influence Brown’s decisions.” The ACIR should not be able to push this issue under the table by claiming ignorance on the one hand and superior judgment on the other. Jose Landino and his co-workers have been fighting for respect for over two years, and Yale students will be standing with them.

Anna Robinson-Sweet is a senior in Davenport College and a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

Comments

  • ignatz

    What is it about labor unions that so disrupts the critical thinking for which Yalies are rightly renowned? Whatever it might be, this column suffers from it.

    1. HEI waged a “nasty anti-union fight”? What was “nasty” about it? Evidently ALL attempts by employers to discourage unionization are “nasty” in the world of Robinson-Sweet. Apparently these HEI workers voted not to have a union. That’s their right. I do hope Robinson-Sweet can forgive them.

    2. HEI “does not respect the basic rights of workers”? Really? They don’t pay their workers? They don’t provide benefits comparable to what prevails in the hotel industry? Without any specifics, this is empty rhetoric bordering on slander.

    3. There have been 4 complaints filed against HEI? Well, under our legal systsem, a complaint does NOT mean that anyone has done anything wrong. It simply means that someone CLAIMS there is a problem, and ultimately a court or an agency will decide the truth.

    In sum, Robinson-Sweet urges Yale to terminate its $120 MM investment in HEI based upon her feelings of solidarity with HEI employees. Is she right? Is she wrong? Would it be to much to ask her to construct a cogent argument?

  • Andreology

    I agree with ignatz. There is no evidence to support Ms. Robinson-Sweet’s claim that HEI is unethical, except for one employee who is owed worker’s compensation. This is far from “damning information.” Ms. Robinson-Sweet’s argument amounts to nothing but “Brown is doing it, so it must be right!” This is the kind of reasoning that got our country into a financial crisis: my friends are investing with Bernie Madoff, and my friends are smart, so I’m going to do it too. Ms. Robinson-Sweet needs to think for herself instead of relying on Brown University.

  • johnsteinbeck

    @ignatz, a few things to consider:

    1. According to national labor relations law, it’s illegal to fire employees for engaging in union activity or threatening employees against unionizing. Unfortunately, without card check and with an NLRB whose certification and arbitration procedures are really slow, it’s pretty common practice for management to wage “nasty [read: illegal] anti-union fights” and win. Companies can, for example, fire pro-union employees knowing that the litigation that follows will likely come after employees vote to have a union. HEI is not the only one to do these sorts of things, nor is it the “nastiest anti-union” corporation ever (Walmart is) — but Yale is known to have large holdings in it, and so a “cogent argument” coming from Yale (read: the “Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility,” let alone the Yale Corporation) would be nice.

    2. Unfortunately the ideological balance in this country and among Yale’s leadership is so anti-worker that illegal behavior — the tip of the iceberg — is what we end up spending most of our time debating about. There are less illegal but just as unnecessary and exploitative things that HEI does, including: paying sub-standard wages (in a service sector economy whose current standard is to keep poor people in debt / on state services anyway… unethical? up to you); acquiring hotels, slashing wages and benefits, casualizing employment, and then selling those hotels at a profit; and speeding up housekeeping and putting housekeepers through back-breaking labor. It’s easy to speak innocence about the extent of HEI’s anti-worker behavior, or to say that it’s just reality (better yet, in a recession! woohoo!), or to care at all about how HEI compares to the corporate hospitality standard before making a statement, if you don’t understand the systematic behavior that companies like HEI engage in.

    For more information, see this pdf: http://www.unitehere.org/HEI_Hotels_and_the_Endowment_Crisis.pdf

  • Andreology

    Perhaps johnsteinbeck should be writing the column, as he actually offers facts and reasoning rather than empty accusations.

  • ignatz

    I agree that johnsteinbeck, unlike Robinson-Sweet, at least constructs a cogent argument. But he too falls far short of offering anything persuasive.

    We all know that it’s illegal to fire employees for engaging in union activity. johnsteinbeck asserts (with no evidence and no specifics) that HEI routinely breaks the law. Then he flips the burden to Yale to justify its non-divestment in HEI. “First the verdict, then the evidence.”

    Finally, he turns to things that are “less illegal but just as unnecessary and exploitative.” These “unnecessary” things all boil down to trying to make money for their shareholders. Apparently johnsteinbeck takes a dim view of the entire hotel industry for its pay scale. That’s his prerogative, and the workers are of course free to seek other jobs if they agree with him. But why should Yale (or any other investor) divest from a company just because they (like the rest of the industry) pay less than johnsteinbeck thinks would be equitable? As for “putting housekeepers through back-breaking labor,” I stay in lots of hotels, and must say I have yet to see a houskeeper work up even a light sweat.

  • Andreology

    It is romantic in the 19th-century sense of the word to construct a dialectic of big evil employer versus small innocent worker. The 21st-century reality is more complex. If the prevailing wage for housekeeping is $8.00 an hour, and if the hospitality industry is highly competitive, is it ethical for an employer to raise the wage significantly if the result is that the hotel goes out of business? Or is the ethical course to keep the wage at market rates and give employees the dignity of work? As for Walmart, there is a good argument that this company has done a huge service to the poor, both in China and in America. See this article from the Chicago Booth School: http://www.chicagobooth.edu/magazine/30/3/facultydigest/facultydigest1.aspx