December 4, 2008

Students Protest Ties To Co. With Alleged Labor Law Violations

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The labor and management practices at a California hotel — owned by a company that has close ties to the University — are drawing criticism from a hospitality workers union and student groups at several college campuses.
Workers at the Hilton Long Beach and Executive Meeting Center in Long Beach, Calif. allege that the hotel managers are unfairly interfering with their desire to organize. The Hilton Long Beach is owned by HEI Hotels and Hospitality, a company founded in 1985 by Gary Mendell ’79 and Steve Mendell ’82, both of whom graduated from the School of Hotel Administration. HEI owns 30 luxury hotels across the country. The company maintains a “very active relationship” with Cornell, according to its spokesperson, Jess Petitt ’05.
HEI regularly recruits Cornell students, and alumni comprise approximately 25 percent of HEI’s corporate offices, Pettus said. The Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Hotel School are also collaborating with HEI on a new course, Sustainable Global Enterprise Practicum in the Hospitality Industry.
Because of HEI’s relationship with the University, several student groups, including Cornell Organization for Labor Action, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan and the Cornell Democrats, have taken up the issue on campus.
On Nov. 24, members of COLA delivered a letter to President David Skorton inquiring about whether Cornell is directly invested in HEI, urging him to make a public statement of concern about the company and asking the University to pledge to not to invest in future HEI funds until the company agrees to respect its workers.
“Cornell has a responsibility to understand the conditions of workers at companies with which it works so closely,” the letter stated. “Our relationship with HEI makes it all the more imperative for us to speak out against this company.”
Emma Schwartz ’09, who is on the E-Board of the Cornell Democrats, said she finds the collaboration questionable.
“It’s important to have a business class that teaches about social responsibility. But, I don’t think what they are doing is socially responsible, so it’s not appropriate for them to teach our students.”
COLA President Marlene Ramos ’09 explained that the campaign that has formed in response to alleged unfair labor practices at HEI is collaborative effort among several student groups on campus. Ramos added that in the coming weeks, her group hopes to publicize the issue more widely, especially to the Hotel School student body.
Schwartz said that based on student research into the University’s investment office, it appears that Cornell has not previously been invested in HEI. But, she too urged the University to pressure HEI to change its practices.
“We’re not asking for Cornell to end its relationship with HEI,” she said. “The workers who work at HEI want jobs. We don’t have anything against HEI in particular. We are just asking them to treat their workers with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Managers at the Hilton Long Beach violated workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act by interrogating, coercing, threatening, disciplining and engaging in the surveillance of employees who were trying to organize, according to an Unfair Labor Practice complaint filed several weeks ago by the UNITE HERE Local 11 union of hospitality workers.
One of the allegations in the complaint stated that the managers issued written warnings to several employees and changed an employee’s work assignment in order discourage her support for the union.
Maria Patlan, who has worked at the Hilton Long Beach Hotel for the past 10 years, said that working conditions started deteriorating when HEI took over the hotel about four years ago. Patlan currently works as both a room attendant and lobby attendant, but said she does not earn an adequate wage and cannot afford the employer’s health insurance plan.
Several months ago, Patlan and several of her co-workers asked their manager, Kristi Allen, for a card-check/neutrality agreement, taking one of the first steps toward unionizing. As the workers began campaigning and organizing, the hotel’s management threatened and intimidated their employees, she said.
“We want to have better conditions of work,” Patlan said in a teleconference organized by UNITE HERE Local 11. “We need someone to listen to us and help us inside the hotel. We want the card-check neutrality. We deserve to be respected and treated like human beings.”
UNITE HERE declined to say how many workers are involved in the campaign in order to protect the workers from retribution from the hotel management.
Petitt said that HEI launched an internal investigation into the accusations, and the company believes that they are not true.
“The accusations, specifically at Hilton Long Beach, are fully unfounded and we’ll cooperate with the National Labor Relations Board investigation,” he said. “We have a very positive relationship with our [employees] at the Hilton Long Beach and the hotel has a low turnover rate compared with the industry average.”
HEI also said in a statement, “We have offered to work with the local labor union and NLRB to conduct a democratic secret ballot of all our associates on the question of union recognition at the hotel.”
Petitt said that thus far, the UNITE HERE union has not responded to the offer.
While HEI said it offered workers the opportunity to unionize through an election under the NLRB, workers are demanding a card-check neutrality, which would allow workers to vote outside of their workplace in a more expeditious process.
Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner, industrial labor relations, an expert on card-check neutrality agreements, explained that the way that the NLRB operates elections for creating unions right now puts workers trying to unionize at a severe disadvantage.
“[This is] a case where the union, with good reason, is not trusting the election process,” she said. “The employer, like any other employer, is trying to hide behind the smokescreen of the ‘democratic election process,’ but there is no such thing. It hasn’t existed [under the NLRB] for more than 20 years.”
Bronfenbrenner said that elections under the NLRB allow employers engage in “extremely aggressive behavior that is designed to intimidate, coerce, and harass” workers into voting against the union.
The alleged management problems at the Hilton Long Beach have sparked the interest of student groups at several other schools, especially those schools that are linked to HEI. Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame and University of Chicago are among those that have reportedly invested in the company, and student groups have organized campaigns in support of efforts to divest from HEI. The Brown Daily Herald reported that Brown University has not disclosed whether or not it is invested in HEI.