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Volunteers and organizers from a union representing workers in the hotel, food service and laundry industries in United States and Canada delivered a petition to the Wharton School on Tuesday.

The petition from UniteHere asked that Wharton’s San Francisco campus stop patronizing le Méridien hotel—the site of a lengthy labor dispute and economic boycott.

According to its organizers, 757 people signed the petition, including some Penn students. When they delivered the petition to Wharton Vice President of Administration and Finance Peter Degnan, they were informed by him that Wharton had no plans of ending its relationship with the hotel.

The petition asked the University to join in a boycott against the hotel, which houses students who travel to San Francisco as a part of the Wharton Executive MBA program. The program’s cost includes the price of staying at the hotel, according to the Wharton website. The petitioners from UniteHere are also asking for Wharton to enact “procedures and contractual language” dictating how the school will respond to labor disputes with outside groups in the future.

As of press time, Degnan has not yet responded to a request for a comment. Neither the Wharton School of Business, Le Méridien hotel, nor HEI Hotels and Resorts — which manages Le Méridien — returned multiple requests for an interview.

Both rising College junior Duong Ly and rising College sophomore Clara Hendrickson worked with UniteHere to distribute the petition on campus. While Hendrickson collected paper signatures, Ly sent the petition to student groups like the Vietnamese Student Association and SLAP.

“[Wharton is] still spending millions of dollars per year on that horrible hotel,” Ly said. “As a Penn student, I feel like I have a responsibility to do something about this.”

While few Penn students are involved with the campaign, students from area colleges, like rising Swarthmore junior Emma Waitzman, have circulated the petition on Penn’s campus.

“I do feel like Pennsylvania … is part of my community so I want to push institutions in the area to be ethical about their business practices,” she said.

The labor dispute started in 2007 when a committee of workers publicly declared their wish for respect from their employer and to have a voice in the process of the negotiations that was free from managerial intimidation. According to UniteHere Local Two, the Le Méridien attempted to block unionization.

Since 2009, UniteHere has alleged that the unionizing workers faced intimidation and coercion. According to UniteHere organizers, one manager at Le Méridien used a bullhorn to humiliate a union leader and hotel workers at a staff meeting.

Later that same year, the National Labor Relations Board investigated claims that the hotel’s working conditions were illegal. NLRB documents show that the union alleged that workers faced “Coercive Statements” like “Threats, Promises of Benefits,” “Discipline”, “Changes in Terms and Conditions of Employment,” “Coercive Actions (Surveillance, etc),” “Coercive Rules,” “Domination,” “Coercion, including Statements and Violence” and “Assistance.”

In response to the allegations of coercive actions and statements, the hotel had to post notices to workers informing them of labor laws and their rights, according to UniteHere.

Le Méridien is a brand of hotels that is owned and operated by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, although HEI Hotels and Resorts manages the specific hotel in San Franscisco due to a franchise agreement with Starwood. According to Grace Dible and Mike Mullins, organizers with UniteHere, HEI is known for its dubious labor practices.

Dible said that HEI purchases failing hotels and “flips them” to make them more profitable. They promise high returns to investors, she added, many of which are universities seeking to increase their endowments.

“HEI promises really big investment but they use practices that are unethical,” Mullins said. According to organizers at UniteHere,it employs a skeleton staff that works harder — servicing many more rooms per hour — for lower pay and fewer benefits.

According to Mark Westerberg, another organizer at UniteHere in San Francisco, there were 220 workers at the hotel in 2004. Now Le Méridien employs only 150.

“This is HEI’s model,” Westerberg said. “They cut and cut and cut, whether its supplies or workers.”

Mullins argues that the increased workload at Le Méridien is dangerous for workers.

“We traditionally think the most dangerous jobs are traditional construction and mining jobs,” he said. “Hotels are full of heavy mattresses and heavy duvets. The more of this work you do, the more dangerous it is.”

Dibble has noticed that housekeepers working at HEI hotels across the country complain of wrist pain. “It’s a lot of repetitive motion,” she said.

According to Westerberg, workers at Le Méridien San Francisco complain that the company does not purchase enough sheets for them to do their job properly.

Mullins argued that since 90 percent of San Francisco hotels are unionized, the school could easily select a hotel with better business practices for the Wharton Executive MBA students’ housing. “Hotels all over San Francisco would trip over themselves to get this contract,” he said.

This is not the first campaign for the University to cut ties with HEI. Between 2008 and 2011 Penn’s branch of the Student Labor Action Project — commonly known as SLAP — and 30 other student groups campaigned for the University to stop investing with HEI.

“It felt personal to a lot of us [involved in the campaign]. We were women and people of color. We were children of workers and children of immigrants…we felt a moral obligation to be involved,” remembered 2011 College graduate and former SLAP member Rose Espinola.

Espinola remembered one action where each of the 30 student groups that pledged their support for the HEI Workers Rising Campaign delivered a roll of towels to President Gutmann.

In 2011, Penn’s Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli announced that Penn would “take into account all relevant circumstances at that time” when considering whether to reinvest with HEI, after which he wrote a column in the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Since then, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown universities, Dartmouth College and the University of Notre Dame have issued statements about the issue of no longer investing with HEI.

Meanwhile, organizers are still working hard to get more signatures before they deliver the petition to Penn administrators this week.

David Thompson, a musician unaffiliated with the University, is one of several West Philadelphia community members who volunteered with UniteHere to advance the petition on campus by approaching students on Locust Walk and College Green and asking for their signature.

As a community member, he felt a moral obligation to take action. “Because Wharton and Penn are such pillars in the community, everyone has a stake in what they do,” he said.

While some students he spoke to were outspoken in their support of the petition, others said they did not support unionization or said that Wharton should value cost efficiency over workers’ conditions.

Thompson believes that pressuring Wharton to distance itself from the hotel is an effective way to improve workers’ conditions. “The workers themselves haven’t been able to change [HEI] … it’s important to go after the institutions that are complicit,” he said.

A previous version of this article indicated that the labor dispute started in 2007 when the workers declared their wish to join with UniteHere for better conditions and wages. At that time, they declared their wish to organize for respect and a voice in the negotiations. The previous version also indicated that Starwood Hotels and Resorts is controlled by HEI. Starwood is not controlled by HEI. A franchise agreement between HEI and Starwood allowed HEI to operate Le Méridien San Francisco, even though the Le Méridien franchise is owned by Starwood. The former version also indicated that Ly was the only Penn student to help UniteHere with their petition on Penn’s campus. Both Ly and another Penn student — College sophomore Clara Hendrickson — worked to distribute the petition on campus.

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