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Student activists hold signs outside professor Leonard Lodish's office last Thursday, asking that Wharton West respect a consumer boycott of a California hotel.

In economic and business classes across campus, students learn about labor as an abstraction, as a commodity, as something to be traded on the market.

But for Peter Ho and three other hotel workers who spoke last week with a group of students, faculty and staff, labor is deeply personal.

"I love my job as a lobby porter," Ho said, proudly listing some of the tasks he is responsible for - cleaning the first- floor bathrooms, elevators and buffing shoes at the Le Meridien hotel in San Francisco.

But once HEI Hotels and Resorts - a hotel investment corporation that has acquired, owns and operates 30 brand-name hotels - bought the Le Meridien San Francisco, Ho noticed a big change in his working conditions and felt his labor was being devalued.

"The company cut employees and corners and now one person does the work of three," he said. "This is unfair."

A number of Penn students, organized as the Student Labor Action Project, feel that way too, and have organized to work with Ho and his fellow employees as they wrangle with HEI over the right to unionize.

These students are asking Penn - which they say holds a lot of power over HEI through its investments in the company and personal connections - to pressure HEI hotels to allow workers to unionize through a method they say is more fair.

Boycotts and campaigns for the same purpose have taken place at college campuses across the country, from the University of Michigan to Harvard.

Hotel workers air their grievances

Eliza Zhang, a housekeeper at the same hotel, says her job has become tougher since HEI took over.

"Supplies are in short supply, we are pressured to finish cleaning rooms faster and now, after a long day at work, my feet are in pain, my fingers are numb and I have pains in my neck and my back," she said.

Both Ho and Zhang worry about their job security and were quick to point out that HEI does not conduct layoffs according to seniority. They say they want HEI to address their concerns - such as better health care options and pensions - but the company has been unresponsive.

"HEI only likes to push and push to the point where you want to quit," Ho said.

Ho says he will not quit. Rather, what he, Zhang, Yauwing So, who also spoke at last week's gathering in DuBois College House - organized by SLAP to let the workers air their grievances in an attempt to garner support for their cause - and 125 of their fellow employees say they want the chance to form a union without interference by HEI management.

Penn Connections

According to College senior, Natalie Kelly, a member of SLAP, Penn has extensive ties to the corporation. HEI CEO Gary Mendell is a Wharton alumnus, the University's endowment is invested in the corporation and Wharton West -Penn's education program for west coast executives - is one of the largest customers of Le Meridien San Francisco.

With this type of leverage over the corporation, Kelly said, Penn can pressure the company to respect the wishes of workers who want to unionize the Le Meridien San Francisco and other HEI hotels in California in a neutral environment.

Penn does not involve itself in the labor disputes of third parties, according to Tony Sorrentino, spokesman for the Office of the Executive Vice President.

SLAP members have taken a number of approaches to encourage Penn to take up the workers' cause.

They have gone on unsuccessful delegations to the University's investment office to receive more specific information about the endowment. They have scheduled a meeting later in March with Penn Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli and a group of HEI executives, at which they hope to discuss the workers' grievances.

Most recently, they have gone knocking on the doors of Penn professors who administer the Wharton West program. They are asking them to respect a consumer boycott of Le Meridien San Francisco that had 700 people protesting in front of the hotel last Tuesday, according to Mark Westerberg, an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 2, the union Ho and his fellow workers wish to join.

Last Thursday, that tactic led to a confrontation with Marketing professor Leonard Lodish, senior advisor to the Wharton West program.

As a group of students and four hotel workers gathered outside Lodish's office door, he looked up from his desk and said "You have some nerve." He stood up and shut his door, citing the presence of a Daily Pennsylvanian photographer as his reason for doing so.

Kelly and other students present knocked on Lodish's office door and informed him that a group of hotel workers had flown from California to present their grievances and to ask him to advise Wharton West to respect the consumer boycott. Lodish did not respond and called security, who escorted the students and workers out of the building, informing them that Huntsman was private property and that they were trespassing. He later said that he would be open to a reasonable conversation with the students if the press were not present.

Ballots or check cards?

The specific disagreement between workers and management at HEI hotels - which SLAP is urging Penn to exert its influence on - revolves around the method of unionization that workers want to use.

Many workers at Le Meridien who are eligible for membership in the UNITE HERE Local 2 have signed a petition asking HEI management to sign what is called a card check/ neutrality agreement. In signing such an agreement, management cedes its ability to campaign against unionization in the workplace and agrees to recognize the formation of a union if more than 50 percent of its workers have signed union check cards.

This type of unionization - the subject of debate around the Employee Free Choice Act currently being deliberated in Congress - is an alternative to the more common method.

The more common method is a two-step process: if 30 percent of workers sign a statement asking for a secret ballot election, it is used to determine whether a majority of workers want a union. Then, the National Labor Relations Board must certify the union.

The first method of unionization is favored by more than 125 of the 180 hotel workers eligible for union representation by UNITE HERE Local 2 at the Le Meridien San Francisco, according to a petition presented at the DuBois meeting. The second is favored by HEI management.

In a press statement by HEI spokesman Jess Petitt, the company said it has "offered to allow our employees to decide the issue of union representation through a democratic secret ballot election. Instead, the union wants to force an unreliable process called card-check, which lacks secrecy and privacy, and can involve employee intimidation."

In separate statements, Westerberg, Ho and Kelly said they disagreed.

"We believe that the secret ballot system is manipulated in management's favor," Westerberg said. "The reason workers do not want to do the NLRB election is that over the years the NLRB has been anything but neutral, the process has been co-opted and working Americans have suffered."

Specifically, Westerberg suggested that managers of corporations can and do appeal secret ballot elections to the NLRB, and that by drawing out such appeals they often break unionization efforts.

He also said that, under the secret ballot election system, companies do not have to remain "neutral" and can actively discourage workers from joining a union.

As an example of such an activity, he cited a September 4, 2008 memo to Le Meridien San Francisco employees by general manager Bob LaCasse that laid out how employees could withdraw their names from the card check/neutrality petition.

"We want management to remain neutral," he said. "We don't want managers bringing people into their offices or scaring them with memos. The best way to coerce people is to threaten their job and only management has the power to do that."

The statement from HEI executives said claims of coercive activity on their part were "slanderous and untrue."

But the workers are not satisfied. Peter Ho said he wants to know why his hours were cut from 40 hours a week to 15 hours a week once he began organizing workers at Le Meridien.

And Westerberg cited a case of "intimidation" in which a cook who had been with Le Meridien San Francisco for over a year was laid off once he began organizing with UNITE HERE, "and he wasn't even lowest in seniority."

Pettit said he was unable to respond to these allegations. "I do not know the specific situation," he said. "But I know we wouldn't do that as an intimidation tactic."

Students call for change

Whichever side is more accurately portraying the truth, this group of Penn student activists has decided to align itself with the efforts of HEI workers.

"I am involved in the campaign because I think our society has deep problems with inequality," Kelly said. "I think the answer to those problems is changing the way we look at work and working people."

Their efforts are inspired by the belief that it will take activism and a view toward what one activist called "restructuring power" to redress the inequalities to which Kelly referred.

"I think service and advocacy can be effective and need to be done, but I don't think they restructure power, said Rose Espinola, a College sophomore working on the SLAP campaign. "I think until Penn students work to restructure power, until they become activists, we are only putting band-aids on bullet wounds."

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