A sea of red T-shirts flooded City Hall Monday night as workers from Le Méridien hotel in Cambridge, known until 2007 as Hotel @ MIT, gathered to protest their working conditions and to ask that the city of Cambridge boycott all services provided by the hotel.
The order passed 8-0, with one of the nine members absent.
Le Méridien is owned by HEI Hotels & Resorts, a corporation which purchases, streamlines, and resells hotels, using investments from university endowments and other funds. Harvard previously invested more than $70 million in HEI but in April joined Yale, Princeton, Brown, and other schools when the Harvard Management Company announced that it would not reinvest in the corporation.
Though the workers at Le Méridien are not unionized, they have been receiving assistance in organizing protests from UNITE HERE Local 26, which represents hospitality workers throughout Massachusetts, including those at Harvard and MIT.
Henry C. Green, the financial secretary treasurer of the union, described before the Council what he saw as a stark contrast between the working conditions at unionized hotels in Cambridge and Boston and those at Le Méridien.
According to Green, while unionized workers enjoyed competitive wages, affordable health care, and manageable work schedules, employees at Le Méridien were forced to pay higher health care and co-pay deductibles and to work additional hours without any raise in pay.
“Many workers are working not only one or two but three and sometimes five positions,” Green said.
Bob Boudreau, a bartender at the Le Méridien, echoed Green’s concerns when describing his own experience of being forced to take on multiple jobs without any increase in pay. He realized he was not alone in his frustration after speaking to colleagues six months ago at a meeting facilitated by UNITE HERE.
“One was from the Sudan who sends money home every month to his family,” Boudreau said. “He came with paychecks that showed that his increase in the first year under the management company [HEI] was eight cents per hour and the second was a whopping 11 cents per hour, well under the 18 percent the management company highlights on their website.”
Boudreau noted that many employees, unable to afford the cost of the company’s health care plan, either opt to join MassHealth, a state-sponsored health care program for the needy, or forgo insurance altogether.
He recounted his dismay when one of his colleagues told him he was dropping his health insurance.
“He is taking a gamble on his health, and for a full-time worker to take that gamble today, it’s not right,” Boudreau said.
Vice Mayor E. Denise Simmons noted that the Council had held many past functions, including inaugural celebrations, at the hotel. Such events would move elsewhere under the order.
“I don’t think we should be paying for other people’s oppression by having functions at that establishment,” she said.
Simmons also voiced her support for the workers and their decision to mobilize.
“It’s easy to sort of cower and not stand up for your rights, hoping that everything will be okay,” she said. “This is a brave step that the employees of the hotel have taken.”
Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 expressed hope that Le Méridien would change its pay structure by the end of October. If an agreement could not be reached, he presented the Council with an alternate plan: a Halloween protest.
“We should go over to the hotel for that night and have a demonstration and we should just boo all night,” Reeves said. “Maybe the Halloween holiday will bring someone to their senses, get all the bad spirits to go away.”
—Staff writer Amanda E. McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Let Them UnionizeNo one questions HEI’s right to own and operate hotels and resorts. Yet to prevent workers from using their only leverage point—their numbers—to improve their negotiating position strikes against basic notions of fairness.