Hotel Workers Activists Renew Fight Against Le Meridien Hotel and HEI Hospitality
ambridge, Mass. - Over 400 workers, activists and community leaders converged upon the Le Meridien Cambridge-MIT Hotel last Thursday to renew their call for hotel workers to be allowed a fair process to decide on unionization.
The protest, part of national week of action spanning both coasts, marked the latest event in a fight that has been going on for over a year.
“(The majority of the workers at Le Meridien Hotel) presented a petition and said they wanted a fair process to form a union, free of harassment, intimidation and threats,” said Brian Lang, President of Local 26 Unite Here, a Boston-based hospitality workers union. “Since then, the workers have been organizing support ... The support has only grown.”
Lang pointed to the large crowd as proof of the widespread support enjoyed by the hotel workers in this fight.
“There is just a growing groundswell of support that is not going to go away until the hotel agrees to a fair process for the workers of the Le Meridien to form a union, if they want to,” said Lang. “(The large crowd) is just a sign of how committed so many people in this community and the hotel workers union are to the cause of the Le Meridien hotel workers.”
The action began with a large rally outside Cambridge City Hall, where the crowd heard from members of the Cambridge City Council, clergy and labor leaders, before embarking upon a visible and vociferous march down Massachusetts Avenue, then on to the intersection of Sidney and Green Streets, where the Le Meridien is located.
Coming on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., several speakers at the rally pointed out that King had been in Memphis that day in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers, and that he was a champion of organized labor throughout his life.
“The truth is that when Dr. King died that day in 1968, he died fighting for workers just like you,” said Paul Robeson Ford, a senior pastor at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge. “What took Dr. King to Memphis wasn’t just a struggle over race, but a struggle over the rights of workers.”
The tragic death of Dr. King, however, wasn’t the only notable anniversary of the day. Six months prior to the rally, the workers of the Le Meridien called for a boycott of the hotel, a measure that drew unanimous support from the Cambridge City Council.
“Six months ago, the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously to support the worker-called boycott at the Le Meridien,” said city councilor Ken Reeves. “I am here today to pledge that we will continue our support until the workers win the respect they deserve.”
The Le Meridien Hotel is owned by HEI Hospitality, a private equity hotelier, that raises the majority of it’s funding from university endowments. For over five years, workers at HEI properties throughout the country have struggled to win a fair process to decide on unionization without fear of reprisals by management. HEI has continually denied workers’ requests.
“We’ve been organizing for over a year,” said Bob Boudreau, a Le Meridien employee who tends the bar at Sidney’s, the bar and grill attached to the hotel. “We hope HEI is hearing the message that we are still standing together in our effort to win respect in the workplace.”
Boudreau said there are many issues between workers and management, but the main thrust of the workers’ efforts has not changed.
“The issue most important to us,” said Boudreau, “is a fair process. Agreeing to a union vote, with neutrality on the part of the hotel, and an agreement not to appeal.”
The push against HEI is also gaining increasing traction with students, who have protested at schools that have invested in the firm, calling for their universities to divest from their holdings in HEI. In April of last year, Harvard University, which has invested at least $70 million in HEI, chose not to reinvest in funds managed by the company following significant pressure from the student body, following the examples of Yale, Princeton and Brown. Students at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which owns the land the Le Meridien occupies, are also pushing the administration to divest from HEI.
“I’m appalled that my university endowment fund is being used to support HEI and Le Meridien,” said Harvard student Gabriel Bayard, in a press release distributed by event organizers Local 26 Unite Here. “I can’t believe the Le Meridien has let this fight drag on for a year in our backyard. It’s time for them to do the right thing.”
Cambridge is far from the only city to call HEI to the carpet for its alleged wrongdoing, and blocking efforts to unionize is far from the only accusation being leveled at the company. According to information from the HEI Workers Rising website, the company has settled, or been found liable, in 50 wage and administrative complaints at two southern California hotels for denying rest breaks to workers, and an additional 58 complaints have been filed on behalf of three other hotels in that state and are pending adjudication.
HEI Hospitality did not respond to requests for comment from Open Media Boston.
Workers at the Le Meridien in San Francisco have also launched a municipal boycott. The actions on both coasts have garnered endorsements from a host of prominent elected officials, including House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California State Senators Leland Yee (D) and Mark Leno (D) and Massachusetts State Representatives Tim Toomey (D-26th Middlesex) and Marjorie Decker (D-25th Middlesex).
While to date HEI has balked at meeting with workers to discuss unionization, Lang said Local 26 remains open to dialogue, but recent efforts by workers to get that ball rolling by traveling to HEI’s Norwalk, CT headquarters bore no fruit, and ultimately ended with a brusque removal by corporate security.
A delegation comprised of Boudreau, a worker from HEI’s Marriott San Diego hotel, a local Connecticut union leader and several students from Yale University attempted to give HEI leadership a petition, but were rebuffed and eventually removed from the premises.
“We asked to see Gary or Steve Mendell, the owners of HEI, but it was Nigel (Hurst), the senior vice president of human resources we spoke with,” recalled Boudreau. “He shook all of our hands, but as soon as the union leader identified himself and tried to present the petition, he said: ‘I don’t want it.’
“One of the students tried to give (Hurst) her business card, and he didn’t want that, and he said: ‘we’re not interested in what students have to say.’ Then he called security and asked them to show us out.”
The response was not unexpected. As Boudreau points out, the contingent didn’t expect any concessions from their journey.
“We were there to let (HEI) know that we are standing together with workers from across the country.”