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Students support hotel workers

Joseph McMahon | Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Socially-conscious students concerned about where the University’s endowment is being invested gathered in LaFortune Monday to support the Hotel Workers Rising movement, which is attempting to form a union for workers in HEI Hotels.

“Rising in the sense that there’s a poverty level and we’re trying to bring all the hotel workers up,” Coalition for Economic Justice member Thanh Le said.

HEI Hotels is a large chain that receives much of its contributed capital from university endowments, from schools such as Harvard, Brown, Michigan and Notre Dame. HEI touts Notre Dame as one of its top investors.

The Coalition for Economic Justice had previously raised concerns over Notre Dame’s stake in HEI when they delivered a personal letter to University President Fr. John Jenkins.

“I think the big thing, and this is how we said it when we sent the letter to Fr. Jenkins, is that we want Notre Dame to be a stellar university that makes a stand on the issue of labor rights,” Coalition for Economic Justice member Michael Angulo said. “That is what the Catholic Church has done, that’s what people of good conscience in this country have always done.”

In his response, Jenkins praised the University’s social investment policy and suggested the students begin meeting with Notre Dame’s Chief Investment Officer Scott Malpass.

“Our position regarding these types of issues is well known and unambiguous: A situation in which we find that the legally protected rights of workers are infringed upon is unacceptable,” Jenkins said in his letter.

Angulo said he has met with Malpass and felt that his concerns were taken seriously.

“He’s very open, has done a lot of good research, and has been very supportive,” Angulo said.

However, the University remains invested in HEI, prompting the Coalition for Economic Justice to invite the Hotel Workers Rising movement and four actual workers from HEI’s Meridian Hotel in San Francisco – Richard Quan, Vincent Mac, Eliza Chang and Michael Ancheta – to campus.

“They shared their stories of how the workload has increased under HEI and how they’ve cut back on the staff working there, basically increasing the work for everyone else,” Coalition member Tatiana Estrada said.

Quan, a former hotel worker who is now a union organizer, said he spent years toiling for HEI Hotels.

“I was a rank and file for many years, meaning I was a worker myself in the hotel industry,” he said.

Ancheta said it was important for students support the workers because without that support, the movement would likely fail.

“We came to talk to you guys so basically we can work together,” he said. “We just want to let you guys know their help is greatly appreciated because their support is definitely significant in our campaign. The workers can’t do it alone.”

Ancheta said he agreed with the Coalition’s call for divestment from HEI Hotels until they enact fair labor practices.

“I don’t think that this school would want to be known as a hotel that treats its workers unjustly,” he said.

Estrada said one of the workers major demands was for card check neutrality agreement in all negotiations.

“A card check neutrality agreement is an agreement where the workers ask the company to sign a statement saying there will be a fair process so that everything will be neutral,” she said. “There won’t be any intimidation tactics, and instead of going through the secret ballot election process, workers can just sign onto cards and [when there’s enough signatures] the union is established.”

Le said the problems actually run much deeper, including major violations of privacy.

“They actually clock the time for how long they spend at the restrooms,” he said. “There are serious privacy issues.”

Le also told The Observer that HEI hires an outside company to hold captive audience meetings, where workers are forced to listen to anti-union rhetoric.

“The main reason the rights are being violated is, just like freedom of speech, we have the right to not listen to what you say,” he said.

Sophomore David Rivera, who attended the event, said he supported the Hotel Workers Rising movement, adding Notre Dame has a responsibility as a Catholic university to avoid unethical businesses.

“I had heard about the HEI campaign that had already been going on, and for a school that has a $7 billion endowment that has a lot of major influence, especially a Catholic university, I believe there is a major obligation to do something about this,” Rivera said.