Workers’ rights groups around the world celebrated an unprecedented victory last November in what had been an ongoing struggle between the workers of Honduras and Russell Athletics, the largest private employer in the country. Almost a year ago, Russell shut down a factory there to prevent workers from organizing a union, throwing 1,200 people out of work. While Russell claims the action was a response to economic pressure, independent labor rights organizations saw otherwise, particularly because Russell immediately opened another non-unionized factory in the surrounding area. So the battle to hold Russell responsible for its violations of workers’ rights began and quickly became one of the largest boycotts in the history of student activism. With Russell being a large supplier of collegiate gear, many of its customers are universities. Ultimately, student activism led to over 95 schools cutting their contracts with Russell as a means of showing their disapproval of the company’s labor practices. This was an incredibly effective form of protest: Russell eventually entered into negotiations with the union in Honduras and, on November 18th, Russell announced it would reopen the factory in Honduras, reemploying everyone whose job had been lost. Moreover, they agreed to remain neutral if workers at any of their other factories in Honduras organized to form a union.
Princeton for Workers’ Rights was ecstatic to get this news, but it was also bittersweet; Princeton was one of the only schools to hold out from condemning Russell’s practices. In fact, Russell trumpeted Princeton’s support for its actions in press releases and on Twitter until the day they finally settled. However, we still have an opportunity to make a stand for workers’ rights. For the past year, Princeton for Workers’ Rights has been struggling to bring both student and administrative attention to our questionable investment in HEI Hotels & Resorts. HEI is a hotel management company that operates 33 hotels across the U.S., and with at least $92.5 million dollars invested, Princeton represents a significant contributor to this business. HEI generates profit by drastically streamlining its operation. This involves lowering its expenses by substantially reducing its workforce and compelling the remaining employees to pick up the extra load. For example, after HEI bought a Sheraton in Virginia, they initially required housekeepers to clean up to 32 rooms—for the same amount of pay and in the same amount of time as they used to clean 16 rooms. Imagine having your workload doubled while your pay remains the same. Some might argue that this is just efficient business practice, but the great physical stress this caused workers was enough for the staff at three hotels to call for change. Since the summer of 2008, workers at three of HEI’s hotels—Sheraton Crystal City, Long Beach Hilton, and San Francisco Le Meridian—have called on management to allow them to choose whether or not to form a union without fear of intimidation and harassment, through a process known as card check/neutrality. Under the card check/neutrality agreement, workers would be free to sign cards asking for union representation if they were so inclined—exactly what Russell has agreed to in Honduras. HEI has refused these workers’ demands, and has taken steps to frustrate their desire for such a process, spending $98,000 on consultants in 2008 to oppose their workers’ efforts to organize.
Workers at these hotels looked to students for support, since universities are HEI’s biggest investors. PWR and student groups from several other universities became involved, and for the past year and half we have been meeting and corresponding with many University officials, including President Tilghman and Andrew Golden, CEO of PRINCO. We have always been met with the same line about private investment strategies and a strong unwillingness to get involved. They have claimed that this is an issue of union politics, but this stance only demonstrates their lack of knowledge on the subject. It is true that the workers are fighting for card check/neutrality, but the issue here is the way workers have been treated in this fight. On October 30th, the Office of the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued an unfair labor practice complaint against HEI, alleging that it violated federal labor law pertaining to workers’ rights to form a union. The complaint alleges instances of intimidation and coercion, claiming that there have been times when HEI has confiscated union materials and threatened workers with losing their employment if they participate in the union. Most seriously, the complaint alleges that HEI fired union leader Ferdi Lazo, a worker at the hotel since 1990, because of his role in the union and to discourage other workers from joining the union. Then on November 30, a second complaint was issued against HEI alleging that a worker was disciplined in retaliation for participating in a union demonstration outside the hotel. HEI, which denies any wrongdoing, must defend itself against the allegations in an unfair labor practice trial to start in April. This is clearly more than a union policy issue, and economic downturn or no, we cannot be oblivious to Princeton’s investment choices. Hotel workers in Virginia and California deserve the same freedom to choose a union that apparel workers in Honduras now enjoy, and it is our responsibility as students to make sure Princeton is not part of the problem.