With businesses portraying workers’ unions negatively in an attempt to get away with irresponsible and opportunistic investment practices, it’s important to recognize workers’ unions as one of the more potent tools for defending human dignity and equality in our world. As we experience the problems that result when investment institutions put profits over people, we must take strides to reverse these values in our lifestyles by voicing our concerns to the institutions that perpetuate them.

Sadly, the University’s administrators have continued this misconception in its investment policy. In an official statement, Chief Financial Officer Timothy Slottow stated that the primary responsibility of endowment investment is to “generate the greatest possible income” and “to shield the endowment from political pressures based on our investment decisions solely on financial factors” while making no mention of the ethics of investment. Years prior to his statement, administrators agreed — under considerable political pressure to divest from poisonous tobacco contracts — that although the University “cannot achieve moral purity in its investments, it does not mean that it can never or should never take a moral position on any investment.” In light of this mixed history, I hope that the response to the University’s questionable investment in the unfair labor practices of HEI Hotels and Resorts will be part of a trend for further positive change.

As one of the fastest growing hotel chains in recent years, HEI makes money through a process referred to as “hotel-flipping,” where it buys hotels, slashes labor and overhead costs, increases sales, and then sells off operations as soon as possible. To HEI executives, this “streamlining” approach has been the most profitable strategy. However, employees do not benefit from the profit HEI is making. Labor cuts have exposed workers to growing physical demands as workloads have increased. Meanwhile, workers’ benefits remain stagnant.

In the summer of 2008, workers at two HEI Hotels in California decided the best way to achieve respect, safety, and decent benefits from their employer was to band together and join a union. Since employees have come out in favor of electing their union leaders, they have been met with harsh repression, harassment, and intimidation from HEI management. And, since important University endowment investors have likely been focused “solely on financial factors,” HEI’s behavior was not prevented by any condition of financial support.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t begin anew. Many universities, including the University of Notre Dame and the University of Pennsylvania, have taken steps to work with HEI to amend labor practices and permit the workers’ union election to use the worker-preferred, card-check election process. Over the past semester, workers from California toured universities including Michigan, Brown and Harvard while telling their story to students. Predictably, these brave representatives have since faced harsh interrogation and surveillance from management after speaking out.

In response to this and other complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board, University CFO Timothy Slottow has agreed to recognize and forward a petition now circulating among concerned students. The Board of Regents is now paying attention to how our $65 million investment in HEI is being used. But it will be another thing to see if a serious follow through will secure justice. After all, Coca-Cola came back to campus just four months after its crimes in Colombia and India propelled the University to susend its contracts. The company returned without any major revisions to its practices.

Despite a history of putting profits above people, I hope that University administrators will not only have the compassion and strength to resolve this case in favor of human equality but also to shape an institutional policy that recognizes the dignity of all workers.

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