Harvard should demand employees of university-owned companies be treated with dignity

By Alexi White, MPP’13, Correspondent

“All who work at Harvard, regardless of rank or position, contribute in vital ways to education and scholarship.” Former Harvard President Larry Summers used these words to inaugurate a new university-wide Statement of Values in 2002. With this Statement, the administration hoped to turn the page on the 2001 Living Wage Campaign, a largely successful grass-roots attempt by Harvard community members to end the practice of paying poverty-level wages at the richest university in the world.

“Whatever our individual roles, and wherever we work within Harvard, we owe it to one another to uphold certain basic values of the community,” read the new statement, before calling for “respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others.”

With a great deal of determination and community support, Harvard employees have slowly won a better life for themselves. But Harvard’s conduct toward a group of workers just across the river suggests that contributing to Harvard’s success is not enough to warrant the respect and dignity reserved for direct employees, and that our university has not truly learned from past experience.

In 2005, Harvard purchased the Hilton DoubleTree Hotel in Allston. On March 11 of this year, a majority of DoubleTree staff presented management with a signed petition requesting a fair process to decide on unionization, the same process used by Harvard’s dining hall workers to select UNITE HERE Local 26 as their representative.

Their reasons are myriad. In a letter to the editor of the Harvard Crimson, Delmy Lemus, a room attendant for the past five years, described how she injured her spine after being pressured to work through her pregnancy without a reduction in workload. Another employee, Sandra Hernandez, described how she cannot afford to cover her husband or child under the hotel’s health insurance, and lives with the fear that one of them will have an accident or major illness.

“All we are asking from Harvard is to give us the same opportunity they have given to their other employees: The right to decide on unionization without intimidation or harassment,” wrote Hernandez. “We all deserve the American Dream.”  

In submitting their petition, the employees asked hotel management not to interfere in the process. According to Andrew Pattison, an employee of the hotel restaurant, DoubleTree management has not honored this request.

“They’re trying to divide people in a lot of different ways,” he said, noting that the hotel is using scare tactics such as summoning employees to private meetings and intimidating them into siding against unionization.

Haley Kossek, a representative of UNITE HERE Local 26, also confirmed continued hostility on the part of management. Calls to the general manager of the DoubleTree were not returned.

On March 15 and again on April 3, supporters from across the Harvard community gathered at Massachusetts Hall to urge Harvard, as the owner of the hotel, to extend to the DoubleTree workers the same community values of respect and dignity that apply to direct employees of Harvard, starting with a unionization process free of intimidation.

“A college that prides itself on having a positive social impact in the community needs to reflect on its impact within its own community,” read a petition presented to administrators on April 3. “We ask Harvard to openly support the DoubleTree employees as they seek respect and justice in the workplace.”

An assistant to Executive Vice-President Katherine Lapp promised a response to the petition, but a representative of the Student Labor Action Movement said no response had been received as of April 17.

This is not the first time Harvard has been asked to stand up for indirectly employed workers, and there is precedent for acknowledging their rights as members of our community. In late 2011, cafeteria workers at Harvard Law School who were employed by a subcontractor began the process of joining UNITE HERE Local 26. Since labor costs would be passed on to the university, the subcontractor deferred to Harvard, and the administration allowed the workers to proceed without interference.

Although the employees at Double Tree are not direct employees of Harvard, the profits from their labor still contribute directly to our university’s investment profits and operations. As the owner, Harvard engages the hotel’s services on a regular basis, including use as lodgings and meeting space for many Harvard Business School conferences. Should these workers not be considered part of our community just because the money goes through a separate corporation? Harvard’s behavior seems to indicate that we have no duty to respect them or ensure them a dignified existence.

Beyond DoubleTree, our university’s $30 billion endowment portfolio includes over one hundred companies in which Harvard is the majority shareholder. There is nothing preventing Harvard from asking each one to adopt the same Statement of Values that guides the rest of our community, and to adopt our policies in areas such as labor, environment, anti-discrimination and more. We may not see these workers or even know they’re there, but we benefit from them every day, and that makes them part of our community, and subject to our values.

It’s time for Harvard to live up to its Statement of Values and give the DoubleTree workers respect and dignity, beginning with a fair process for unionization. As our Statement of Values says, we owe it to one another.

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