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A persistent pattern

Alex Coccia | Monday, February 28, 2011

When the wise speak …

Elie Wiesel tells the story of a just man who goes into a city and screams continually, trying to get the people in the city to change their ways for the better. At first the people take notice of this new sight, but finally they call him naive; they ignore him. He continues to scream; he continues to fight. A child asks him, “Sir, no one is listening to you, why are you still fighting?” “At first, I wanted to change these people,” says the just man, “but now when you hear me scream, it is so that I do not let them change me.”

Now let’s move this story to South Bend in a place called the University of Notre Dame. Members of the Campus Labor Action Project have been calling on Notre Dame to divest from HEI, a hotel and resort company which has in the past faced allegations of abuses of worker rights, including staff cuts, eliminating job functions, ignoring breaks mandated by state-law, low wages and limiting work supplies. HEI is being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board — an independent federal agency with the power to protect the rights of workers — on charges including making retaliatory reductions in workers’ schedules, prohibiting workers from posting pro-union materials on bulletin boards, conducting unlawful surveillance of workers and interrogating workers about their actions, instructing workers not to communicate with the public about their working conditions and suspending a worker in Irvine in retaliation for engaging in pro-union activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act. While the University has not yet acted on the calls to action by its students who continue to fight for the rights of workers, perhaps they will listen now that Brown University has spoken on the issue.

Brown responded to a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy (ACCRIP) within Brown University which stated: “After thoughtful deliberations, ACCRIP concluded that while HEI had not been found guilty of violations of the labor code, a persistent pattern of allegations involving the company’s treatment of workers and interference with their efforts to unionize, combined with repeated settlements … raised serious questions whether Brown’s continued association with HEI would be consistent with the ethical principles governing the university’s investments. ACCRIP has recommended, therefore, that Brown University should refrain from reinvesting in HEI until the Corporation is confident that HEI adheres to our high standards regarding respectful and humane treatment of workers, and that workers at HEI-operated hotels are able to seek union representation without fear of intimidation.” Brown, a member of the Ivy League and a top-20 national university, has decided not to reinvest with HEI once their current 10-year investment that was begun in 2006 is over.

The significance of Brown’s decision is that it lends credence to committed students who have been working at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Penn, Chicago, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to help their institutions align necessary investment with ethical practice. Like the just man, these students have continued to scream, but unlike in the story of the just man someone is finally listening. Brown did not dismiss the opinions of the students. Brown took what they had to say under consideration by its advisory committee who had been pressured again and again by the students, faculty and staff, encouraging them to reexamine their investments.

The Notre Dame students fighting for the rights of HEI workers believe that Catholic Social Teaching should require Notre Dame to divest from HEI. Catholic Social Teaching provides for the protection of the dignity of workers. Therefore, it provides for the protection of the rights of workers to be paid a living wage, to organize and join unions. When there are people or entities fighting for basic human rights, it is usually best to listen — whether it is to the Ivy League Brown University, or to the workers themselves who report unfair working conditions, or to the groups like United Students Against Sweatshops or Campus Labor Action Project, or even to individual students. We all should listen to Catholic Social Teaching. Brown’s decision should be a further impetus for Notre Dame to thoroughly investigate the status of its investments. There is no doubt that this will take effort on the part of Notre Dame — managing a university’s investments is complicated. But following Catholic Social Teaching is not a sacrifice, it is an investment.

… listen.


Alex Coccia is a freshman. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.