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On March 13, three Penn students associated with the Student Labor Action Project returned early from spring break to attend their much-anticipated meeting with Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli and an executive from HEI, a hotel-management corporation with ties to the University.

The students - who are working on behalf of HEI employees in the midst of a labor dispute in California - sought to air the grievances of the workers and obtain a pledge from HEI management that it would remain neutral as its workers organize a union drive.

Penn, however, does not want to take sides in the labor dispute.

"We remained neutral during the meeting as Penn does not involve itself in third-party labor issues," University spokesman Anthony Sorrentino wrote in a statement.

The neutrality pledge sought by the students was not given by the HEI executive, Senior Vice President Nigel Hurst, at the meeting.

Supporters of such a pledge cite corporations' ability to terminate workers and cut hours as proof that a commitment to neutrality is needed. Critics state that such an agreement would effectively silence management, inhibiting its ability to counteract the claims of the union.

Hurst called the March 13 meeting productive because he "was able to present our philosophy regarding union representation and address allegations regarding HEI's behavior."

Because the management did not agree to neutrality, the SLAP students are encouraging Penn to leverage its ties with the corporation in order to persuade HEI to agree to the demands of the workers who want to unionize.

Penn, along with other peer institutions whose students are making similar demands on their universities, is invested in the corporation.

The University has additional ties to the corporation as well. Wharton West, Wharton's educational program for West Coast executives, is a major client of HEI-owned Le Meridien San Francisco. The hotel is currently suffering a consumer boycott organized by HEI employees and Unite Here Local 2, the San Francisco branch of the major hospitality workers union.

In addition, HEI CEO Gary Mendell is a Wharton alumnus.

The students want Penn to divest from the corporation and Wharton West to partake in the boycott until HEI management agrees to neutrality and allows its workers to organize through the card-check process, an alternative to the more common union organizing method overseen by the National Labor Relation Board.

In the aforementioned statement, Sorrentino maintained that Penn will not get involved in the dispute.

"Penn respects both the legal and ethical rights of employees to self determine if they wish to be represented by a third party, which is by a secret-ballot election independently monitored by the National Labor Relations Board," Sorrentino wrote.

SLAP took issue with the administration's reasoning.

"Penn is already involved in this so-called 'third-party' labor dispute. They are investors, enabling the company to buy hotels and put their policies into practice," wrote College senior Natalie Kelly in a statement on behalf of SLAP.

She said that SLAP has significant support from the Penn community, citing a petition she presented to Carnaroli and Hurst at the March 13 meeting. The petition had nearly 600 signatures from Penn students, faculty and staff and called on HEI to allow its workers to organize in an environment free from possible intimidation.

"By pulling their investment, they side with the workers," Kelly added. "By continuing their investment, they side with management."

But the administration does not believe it has sided with the company. In the statement, Penn said that "just as we recognize the rights of workers to seek to organize under the law, we also recognize the rights of employers to communicate with their employees during the process."

The students of SLAP disagreed and say they are waiting for a forthcoming announcement from Wharton West regarding whether it will partake in the consumer boycott of Le Meridien San Francisco.

"Penn's investment decisions can make possible or prevent worker exploitation, Kelly said. "In this situation, Carnaroli's claims to neutrality can only be attempts at mystification."

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