February 24, 2011

Cornell Maintains Close Ties With HEI After Brown Divests

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After Brown University divested from HEI Hotel and Resorts because of the company’s alleged labor malpractices, the University — which does not invest in HEI — acknowledged its donor relationship with the company but declined to comment on the allegations.

Brown agreed to “refrain from reinvesting” in the company until its administration is “confident that [HEI] adheres to our high standards regarding respectful and humane treatment of workers,” Mark Nickel, senior editor for media relations at Brown, said in an e-mail statement.

While Cornell does not invest in the company, according to Joanne DeStefano, vice president for financial affairs and university controller, HEI Hotels is inscribed on the School of Hotel Administration’s “Corporate and Foundation Wall of Fame,” which is reserved for organizations that have donated between $100,000 and $999,000 to the school.

Gary Mendell ’79, CEO of HEI, and Steve Mendell ’82, HEI president, are “active and loyal alumni of the University,” Jon Denison, associate dean for external affairs of the School of Hotel Administration, stated via e-mail.

The company also made a “multi-year commitment” to partner with the Johnson Graduate School of Management to sponsor Hotel Administration 6690: Sustainable Global Enterprise in the Hospitality Industry.

The National Labor Relations Board has claimed in seven separate cases that HEI threatened and retaliated against employees for embarking on unionization efforts. Five previous NLRB cases have been settled by the company for undisclosed amounts while two others remain pending, according to the NLRB website.

Unite Here, the hotel workers’ union, supports the divestment effort and applauded Brown’s “moral and responsible decision,” Leigh Shelton, labor organizer, said.

HEI disputes the union’s accusations, maintaining that they have a fair record on labor issues.

“We have excellent relationships with all our employees … and there is no persistent pattern of allegations,” Nigel Hurst, HEI’s senior vice president for human resources, said.

While most Day Hall administrators declined to comment on Cornell’s financial relationship with HEI, Joanne DeStefano, vice president for financial affairs and university controller, Cornell holds no portfolio investments in the company.

“Other than a donor relationship, there is no business or investment relationship. I am not aware of the University doing any business with HEI,” she said in an e-mail statement.

The NLRB detailed the labor conditions at the company in a case filed in December 2010 on behalf of Andrew Cohen, an HEI employee, “They’ve attempted to fire workers for labor organizing,” Cohen said. “It has been a very intimidating atmosphere since we went public for a union.”

Cohen, who works at the Embassy Suites in Irvine, Calif. said HEI management “brought in a union buster” — a person “to trail each housekeeper and micromanage each line of work” — in an effort “to harass the more pro-union and outspoken workers.”

“I’ve been confronted by the manager of the hotel — he tried to interrogate me … I’ve had my hours cut back badly,” Cohen said. “There is still no union [despite asking HEI repeatedly] to give us a card check agreement.”

Since previous NLRB cases have ended in out-of-court settlements, there are no proven labor violations against HEI.

“There are no allegations against us whatsoever,” Nigel Hurst said, later stating that “there is one source only that has tried to raised allegations against us.”

Brown previously initiated disinvestment campaigns on companies profiting in the Darfur region of Sudan and corporations manufacturing cigarettes, according to Brown’s advisory committee on investment policy.

Other Ivy League schools have made public their financial records on investments with HEI Hotels. According to Unite Here’s statements, Harvard, Yale and Princeton all invest in HEI and have come under fire from student labor groups for refusing to remove their investments from HEI.

The Mendell brothers were awarded the 2007 Hospitality Innovator Award, sponsored by The Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship.

The company owns more than 30 properties across the nation and is the seventh largest hotel management company.

Original Author: Max Schindler