Harvard Students, HEI Hotel Workers Score Mutual Victory
As undergraduate students at Harvard, Devi Lockwood and Jia Hui Lee would typically have little reason to know Rosa de la Rosa or Heather Nichols, who work just a few miles from Harvard Yard cleaning guest rooms and staffing the front desk, respectively, at Le Meridien Hotel.
But Lockwood and Lee, overcoming the classic town-gown social divide, have successfully joined with fellow students in the school's Student-Labor Action Movement to win a major victory that may help Rosa and Nichols win a union to help change what they describe as appalling working conditions at the hotel.
After several years of campaigning and following student victories at Yale, Brown, Vanderbilt, Princeton and other elite schools, Harvard students persuaded university authorities to review their investment in HEI, a owner and operator of hotels. HEI raises investments primarily from prestigious university funds, then strips down costs and re-sells the hotels at what is promised to be a hefty profit. Harvard has invested around $70 million in HEI, according to researchers with UNITE HERE, the union organizing Le Meridien and other HEI workers, making it HEI's third largest financial backer.
HEI's drive for efficiency, profit, and a high price when it flips the hotel leads to overwork, poor pay, abusive treatment and arbitrary supervision of workers like Rosa, 57, and Nichols, 23. Rosa supports the campaign for a fair process to recognize the union for at least two reasons, she said. “[H]ow they treat people–and the pay. There are a lot of people being overworked, sometimes given the work of three people. Then sometimes they don't give people enough work. They charge a lot for health and dental insurance. I have to pay for rent and food, and there's just not much money left.”