Let Them Unionize

Harvard must help hotel employees get fair treatment

This past week, activists in the Cambridge area, including several Harvard students, protested in front of the Le Méridien hotel in support of its workers’ right to unionize. The Le Méridien is owned by HEI Hotels & Resorts, a controversial hospitality operator with a history of alleged employee mistreatment. Last April, on the heels of a review of HEI’s business practices, Harvard announced that they would decline to reinvest in the company. Although they attributed their decision to portfolio concerns, onlookers have taken the decision as a reaction to the accusations of worker mistreatment at HEI hotels. However, while that decision was praiseworthy at the time, it did little to combat the practices that have led laborers at Le Méridien to seek to improve their conditions. Today, these workers are still refused the basic right of unionization—and a boycott of the hotel, already backed by the Cambridge City Council, is wholly warranted. In fact, we believe that Harvard should also endorse such a measure.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect who served as inspiration for Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, once said, “If capitalism is fair then unionism must be. If men have a right to capitalize their ideas and the resources of their country, then that implies the right of men to capitalize their labor.”  We agree. No 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.

Thankfully, Harvard recognizes the rights of workers to organize, and workers here can expect to earn above-average wages. Harvard should use its stature in the Cambridge community to ensure Le Méridien workers can enjoy the collective bargaining rights it grants to its own laborers. By joining the boycott, it can pressure HEI to adopt the policy of employer neutrality in the unionization process, a critical step to allowing a fair process.

While it can be difficult for the administration to exert influence in a corporation from which it has declined to reinvest, Harvard must not give up its responsibility to exert a positive force on worker treatment in Cambridge, where possible. It should also not forget employees of his own hotel, such as those who work at the Harvard-owned DoubleTree Suites hotel in Boston. As of now, these workers are also not unionized, although they have recently expressed interest in unionizing. In their statement of interest, DoubleTree workers petitioned, “We demand that the owner, Harvard University, and management of the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Boston, respect our signatures and agree to a fair process for us to decide whether to have union representation without management interference and intimidation.” Harvard should do what it can to guarantee a fair unionization process for employees at the DoubleTree, and exert pressure on Le Méridien to do the same.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:


CLARIFICATION: January 28, 2014

An earlier version of headline of this article and statements in the article stated that the DoubleTree Suites hotel is Harvard-owned. To clarify, the company is housed in a Harvard-owned building.


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