Whether it’s a Motel 6 or the Hyatt, hotels are places for a good night’s rest and at the very least you don’t have to tidy up after yourself before heading out. But what about those who do have to do the tidying up, the cooking, the cleaning? Better question: why should university students care?
Our universities’ money is flowing in and out of places that you wouldn’t think a university would care to do business including the hospitality industry. HEI Hotels is a hotel operator whose investments come from university endowments- and we’re talking major endowments such as those at some of the most elite universities including Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. While HEI may not be a familiar acronym, HEI’s hotel names such as the Sheraton or Hilton might ring a few bells. The Embassy Suites Irvine, Hilton Long Beach, Sheraton Crystal City, and Le Meridien San Francisco are just some of the hotels operated by HEI through university endowment money. These are the same hotels where workers have gotten fired for eating a guest’s leftover apple or being vocally supportive of unionizing. The average hourly wage for a housekeeper at the Embassy Suites Irvine is $9.74 per hour, and $9.75 at the Hilton Long Beach. If the fact that our universties’ money is tied to union busting hotels paying their workers poverty wages isn’t a surprise to you, then just know that students across the nation have been downright outraged at their adminstration’s complete apathy and inaction at addressing the issue and have been putting on the pressure to stop their universities from investing in HEI.
On February 16, 2011, Brown University became the first school to commit to not reinvest in HEI after a series of protests by the USAS affiliate, Student Labor Alliance (SLA). Soon after in March, the USAS affiliate at UPenn pressured their administration into making a similar commitment. In the Fall of 2011, Yale put out their statement…then Vanderbilt in the new year…then Princeton in March…then Dartmouth. On March 31, 2012, Harvard University notified students in the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) that they were making themselves the latest addition to the growing list of schools saying “no” to HEI. As students campaigned to get these commitments out of their administrators, fired workers at HEI hotels have gotten disciplinary notices removed, their wages paid back to them after wrongful firings, and a movement for hotel worker union power has been strengthened through the support of unlikely leverage holders: students.
Students and workers took action together holding pickets outside hotels, protests on campus, and even coming together to disrupt HEI’s annual investor meeting. With student pressure building nationwide over nearly 3 years, students to this day take full advantage as they continue their fight to stop investments in HEI and continue to win on their campuses, sometimes much sooner than they thought. Nathan Gusdorf is a student who helped run the HEI campaign at Dartmouth that picked up momentum after he and a number of other Dartmouth students attended the USAS National Conference. Dartmouth’s win came just three months after students broached the issue with their adminstration and after a few student actions that made it clear that Dartmouth students were not alone in this fight. ”They knew there was a lot of pressure that had been building nationally and that we were mobilizing students locally,” said Nathan, “Rather than take the flack they decided to preempt a larger campaign and disinvest”. Fellow student organizer Janet Kim spoke to The Dartmouth just days after their victory.“It’s a big win for us,” says Janet Kim. “It took Princeton three years of campaigning to successfully get their school to disinvest, and we only took three months and applied only a couple of pressure points.”
The campaign against HEI to put an end to their sweatshop hotels continues today. Schools like Swarthmore College and Cornell, both top colleges that do not have known investment ties to HEI, have been pressured by students to make statements that they would not consider investing in HEI in the future. While HEI may not be a household name, consider it just one of the many corporations that’s gaining unfavorable fame on college campuses for dragging our instiutions’ names and reputations into their scandalous worker rights controversies. Just like Sodexo, Aramark, Compass, UNICCO, Allied Barton, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Chik-fil-A, Starbucks…(the list goes on), HEI is just one more corporation students have set their campaigns sights on, and saying no more. We will continue to campaign alongside workers and stay nationally coordinated as a student network to keep these corporations from getting away with a race to the bottom using our university money. It is only through the coordination with students and solidarity with labor that we will be able to ensure a check on wealthy corporations and a better living for all members of our community.