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Students protest University investment

Sarah Mervosh | Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sophomore Roman Sanchez and junior Liz Furman were two of several students who distributed flyers outside the Junior Parents Weekend Mass to raise awareness about the University’s investment in HEI Hotels and Resorts — a hotel chain with alleged unfair labor practices.

“Parents were there and a lot of them are alumni,” Sanchez said. “A lot of them give money to the school.”

Furman added, “And they should probably know where their money is going.”
But Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) stopped the students in their campaign and the flyers were confiscated.

The disciplinary action
Assistant Director for NDSP Dave Chapman said the demonstration was terminated because the students did not have permission from the Office of Residence Life and Housing (ORLH).

Du Lac, the student handbook, states, “All demonstrations must be registered in writing with the Associate Vice President for Residence Life.”

“They were asked if they had permission and they said no, they did not. They said they didn’t know that they needed permission,” Chapman said. “The report was filed and forwarded to ORLH, as we always do. The flyers were confiscated.”

As a result of the incident, the students were disciplined by ORLH and are awaiting the University’s decision regarding their punishment, Sanchez and Furman said.

“We understand that as a private institution, Notre Dame can do whatever they want, basically,” Furman said. “But our question is, is that really in line with the kind of learning experience they want students to have here, with having freedom of expression so restricted? The lack of freedom of expression on this campus is unreasonable.”

The incident inspired several alumni to write a Letter to the Editor in the March 18 edition of The Observer.

John Lavelle, of the Class of 1987, who was one of the authors of the letter, said the University should not apply its policies to discourage student expression.

“My perspective as a lawyer and a graduated alumni is that there ought to be a space at Notre Dame to express these views,” Lavelle said. “The University shouldn’t be cracking down on students who express views just because they take a position that might be embarrassing to [the University].”

Lavelle also questioned whether the policy requiring permission was universally enforced.
“I think that you would look at the way this policy is kind of selectively enforced or creates the opportunity for selective enforcement, where the University is simply exercising it in a way to prohibit expressive conduct,” Lavelle said.

Chapman said the only reason the policy would not be enforced is if NDSP was not notified of a demonstration.

“If we were not called about it or we don’t know what’s going on, then we can’t do anything about it,” he said.

The concerned students are currently persisting in their mission to promote awareness about the University’s investment in HEI by wearing orange jumpsuits to classes this week.

Issue behind disciplinary action
HEI is an investment firm that acquires, develops and operates hotels under well-known names such as Marriott, Sheraton and Hilton. The company has more than 5,000 employees, Chief Investment Officer Scott Malpass said.

Notre Dame’s real estate portfolio is invested in many properties, such as office, retail, residential and hotels, which includes HEI. The University assesses every firm it invests in and their commitment to social responsibility, he said.

“They are very good. They are a very good company. Their reputation in the industry is fabulous,” Malpass said.

Sanchez said he and other students are protesting against the University’s investment in HEI because the company does not align with Catholic Social Teaching, which calls for workers’ rights and the right to unionize.

Malpass said HEI is not “anti-union” in any way, and currently owns hotels that have unions.

“The union has come to campus and fed the students all kinds of information that isn’t true about HEI,” he said. “Our students think that HEI is a terrible place, that they are abusing their employees. We are not against unions. HEI runs union hotels.”

Malpass also said HEI had a third party survey their employees’ job satisfaction. The industry average score is 75 percent satisfied, while HEI scored in the 80 to 90 percent range, he said.

“I have spoken to  …  employees, including general managers of the hotels, wait staff, housekeeping staff and front desk personnel,” Malpass said. “They were all complimentary of the company.”

In the past, the labor union UNITE HERE has targeted HEI for allegedly disallowing employees to join a union. UNITE HERE has filed multiple allegations against HEI, but none have proven, Malpass said.

“The filing of multiple allegations is a typical practice from UNITE HERE and HEI is one of many companies the union has unfairly targeted,” Malpass said. “To date, there have been no findings by any court, government agency or arbitrator against any of HEI’s hotels.”

Malpass said he encourages students to pursue their mission in other areas.

“I applaud our students’ interest in the issues and concern for workers and workers’ rights to organize,” he said. “I continue to support efforts to raise awareness about unfair labor practices in general, but we have done a thorough review [of HEI] and it is clear that issue is simply the union.

“UNITE HERE has got to our students and convinced them the HEI is a bad company even though the evidence doesn’t support that at all,” he said.

The bottom line — according to Sanchez — lies in Catholic Social Teaching.

“[Malpass] is going to say we’re biased and we’re going to say he’s biased, but the bottom line is Catholic Social Teaching says we should be biased to the worker,” Sanchez said.