Last week, more than 100 workers, students, and supporters launched a boycott of the Boston-Cambridge DoubleTree to support employee efforts to form a union. Advocates are asking prospective guests not to patronize the hotel and are asking Harvard, which owns the hotel building but does not manage it, to apply pressure until workers are granted their preferred method of unionization.
While Harvard ought to respect the wishes of the majority of workers, what the organizers are asking Harvard to do goes beyond any legal obligation. In the past, claims have been made of illegal interference with the DoubleTree workers’ unionization process. If true, then Harvard should push for change. But a central aim of the boycott is to influence the DoubleTree management’s choice between two legal unionization processes. That alone does not warrant intervention by Harvard.
The first of those two options is the National Labor Relations Board’s election process, which recognizes a union when 50 percent of workers vote in favor at a secret ballot election held at a date of the employer’s choosing. The second method, preferred by the hotel workers, is a card check—workers are able to sign a card at any time assenting to union representation. Employers must agree to a card check in lieu of an NLRB secret ballot.
The boycott organizers’ aim of pressuring hotel management to support the card check is legitimate and certainly well intentioned. But it’s not obvious that the card check is any fairer than the NLRB election. Although card check does allow union supporters to control more of the process, it can also deprive workers of a secret ballot. Harvard and Hilton Worldwide, the operator of the DoubleTree, are under no legal obligation to agree.
“The University will support any fair process for unionization that is agreed upon between Hilton and Local 26,” Harvard’s director of labor relations Bill Murphy said in a statement referring to the chapter of UNITE HERE! through which the workers are seeking union representation. That stance is the correct one.
To some, the fact that the University still collects $20 million per year from the building makes the management and ownership divide a distinction without difference. But while Harvard should insist that its tenants follow the law, it should not seek to mandate the minutiae of its tenants’ business practices.
The union organizers want the University to wage an ideological battle in which it has no place. That is not the mission of the University, and it should not be the course it pursues with the DoubleTree.
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