HEI Victory at Brown: a Student Organizer's Story

by Haley Kossek, Brown Student Labor Alliance

Brown University’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy (ACCRIP) has recommended that Brown not reinvest in HEI Hotels and Resorts, a company in which it is currently invested, until the university is confident that HEI is respecting the rights of the workers. HEI is a hotel management company that workers and students have been organizing against for the past two years in response to issues ranging from workloads to working conditions to management treatment of pro-union employees.

This is an unprecedented instance of labor rights standards being used to decide against the University investing in a company. (Previous University divestments have targeted tobacco companies and companies doing business in Darfur and South Africa due to health and human rights concerns.)

As per an email from the ACCRIP chairman sent to the Brown University Student Labor Alliance, the student group organizing our campus’s campaign in support of HEI workers, the committee’s specific recommendation stated that:
a persistent pattern of allegations involving the company’s treatment of workers and interference with their efforts to unionize, combined with repeated settlements, as described above, 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.

This victory is the culmination of two years during which Brown Student Labor Alliance members have protested outside of Brown Corporation meetings, walked picket lines with workers at HEI hotels, delegated university administrators, collected petition signatures, held a banner outside a university photo op in the rain, temporarily occupied the university President’s office, and performed a snarky mock wedding. Multiple waves of students have contributed to this campaign, not diverted by repeated admonishments from HEI and the University that our efforts were futile.

When Brown students first began fighting against our university’s investment in HEI, they were initially told that the university could not confirm or deny its investment in the company. As the student campaign continued, the university admitted that it was an HEI investor, but maintained that none of the company’s actions were objectionable. Students and workers refused to accept that response; HEI workers visited Brown multiple times to speak out against the university’s investment in a company that treats them unfairly, and students continued to lead public actions in support of them.

Eventually, in February 2010, following a recommendation from ACCRIP, Brown’s President Ruth Simmons agreed to write a letter to HEI CEO Gary Mendell, writing that “if there were to be any truth to the claims of the union and others that workers at some of your properties have been subjected to intimidation by managers due to their pro-union activities, this would be a matter of deep concern and contrary to our standards for investing.” And now, almost a year later, the University is finally beginning to make good on that claim, showing that HEI’s disrespectful treatment of workers is “contrary to our standards for investing” in practice.

Brown is the first university to take this stance, in a nationwide campaign that has spanned two years, almost ten college campuses, a sit-in at the investment office at Yale and a weeklong hunger strike at Notre Dame. The progress over time is tangible. Students successfully pushed a university all the way from refusing to acknowledge its investment in HEI, to recommending against giving the company more money in the future—a testament to the value of perseverance in student activist campaigns. Brown Student Labor Alliance members raised their objections about the university’s investment in HEI to Brown ACCRIP five times before this recent victory. Each time, the Student Labor Alliance’s concerns were dismissed as unsubstantiated or outside of the committee’s purview, and each time, students responded by organizing a public response to those dismissals, refusing to allow the ongoing injustices at HEI hotels to be ignored. That refusal to be discouraged by the naysaying of administrators ultimately delivered an unprecedented declaration that respect for labor rights must be a guiding principle for the University’s investments, a powerful reminder of what is possible in the movements for student power and worker power.

An awareness of that power might explain why HEI, like university administrators, has also been inclined to use dismissiveness as a favorite tactic, referring to the worker and student campaigns against it as “unjustified” and based off of mere “allegations.” Undeterred, workers at HEI hotels have continued to demand change, calling for consumer boycotts at four HEI hotels around the country and leading a one-day strike at the HEI-managed Embassy Suites Irvine this summer. Says Maribel Duarte, a housekeeper at the Embassy Suites Irvine, before workers there began organizing, “we were ignored and we were afraid to lose our jobs. That's why I want to have a union — so I feel like we can speak up.” HEI hotel workers have been “speaking up” for years. Brown ACCRIP’s recommendation to stop doing business with the company is a hopeful sign that HEI’s investors are finally starting to listen.

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