City boycotts Le Méridien

Hotel workers seek MIT’s endorsement of boycott

Workers at Le Méridien Hotel, located at 20 Sidney Street in Cambridge, are seeking MIT’s endorsement of a boycott on the hotel. The boycott began on Oct. 11 and is in response to what the workers say is management’s refusal to respond to a request that hotel employees be permitted to consider the option of unionization without managerial interference. In reference to the Le Méridien labor dispute, Nate Nickerson, MIT’s director of communications, informed The Tech, “MIT’s general practice is not to assess the business actions of other organizations.”

As of the time of writing, MIT continues to recommend Le Méridien as a place to stay in Cambridge for out of town guests of the Institute. Le Méridien is also a “preferred” vendor of MIT, indicating that the hotel provides MIT affiliates with preferential discounts. (MIT classifies hotels as preferred and partner, with the latter characterized as the best options.)

The Institute has a long history with the hotel at 20 Sidney Street, which was originally a partnership between MIT and Forest City Enterprises and operated under the name “The Hotel@MIT.” In 2007, MIT sold the hotel to HEI Hotels & Resorts, a hotel investment group. According to the City of Cambridge’s Property database, MIT continues to own the land underneath of the hotel and rents it to HEI Hotels on a long-term lease.

Le Méridien workers claim that their working conditions began to deteriorate after the 2007 sale. According to Heather Nichols, a front desk associate at Le Méridien, “There used to be over 100 people working here. But since HEI took over they’ve been cutting staff. We are now down to around 70.” Workers claim that as a result of the cuts they end up performing multiple functions at the Hotel. “There is often no concierge, bell boy, or phone operator,” said Nichols. “This forces workers at the front desk to essentially work up to five different jobs at once” while receiving no additional pay.

Workers also expressed concerns surrounding increases in their health insurance premiums. At a recent Cambridge City Council meeting, the workers testified that these increases are so exorbitant that they can no longer afford the company’s insurance and have resorted to enrolling in the state health insurance program, MassHealth.

Speaking by telephone, Wade Gates, a spokesman of HEI Hotels, responded to those claims, saying that “healthcare costs are going up for everyone, not just our organization.”

In an effort to address these and other complaints, 70 percent of workers at the hotel signed a document requesting that the hotel management maintain a neutral stance while workers debated whether or not to join Local 26, the Boston union of hospitality workers. As part of this neutrality, the hotel management would agree not to harass or fire employees in an attempt to deter unionization.

According to Nichols, the workers tried to deliver their neutrality request to the hotel’s general manager and director of human resources on Mar. 7. The management locked their doors and refused to accept the request, which was then later sent to them via mail, said Nichols and Brian Lang, president of Local 26.

Gates refutes Nichols’ statement that the hotel management was unresponsive to their requests. “We have an open door process and culture,” said Gates. “We believe in building an employee culture of respect, and we respect the regulations set forth by the National Labor Relations Board which specify that employees must hold elections in order to join the union. Hotel employees have not yet held elections, but if they choose to do so, we will respect that process and the outcome.”

Before proceeding with elections or other unionization related activities, workers at Le Méridien want a written agreement from management specifying that they will remain neutral during a potential unionization process. The failure to provide such an agreement has led workers to take further actions. On Oct. 11, they organized a picket line at the Hotel. With more than 200 attendees, Lang reported that picketers marched from Le Méridien Hotel to the Cambridge City Hall where they were received by City Councillors who agreed to support the workers’ efforts to improve their working conditions.

At the Cambridge City Council meeting held on Oct. 15, the City Council voted unanimously to pass an order which instructs “the city manager and all city departments to boycott the services provided by HEI Le Méridien Cambridge.” According to the City Council minutes from Oct. 15, the Council normally holds festivities at Le Méridien “every other year following its swearing in ceremony.” The Council will cease to hold this particular event as well as all others at the hotel until “HEI changes its practices and treats its workers with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

HEI Hotels has come under fire before for labor complaints. This has led many major universities to preclude further investment in HEI. According to an article published in The Crimson in April 2012, Harvard Management, which manages Harvard University’s endowment, announced that it would no longer continue to invest with the company due to these complaints. A report by the organization HEI Workers Rising! specifies that Harvard’s previous investments in HEI had totaled some $70 million.

The Crimson report further states that within the last year Princeton, Yale, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Swarthmore have all announced that they will not continue to invest funds in the company.

According to Lang, Le Méridien workers will continue in their efforts to draw MIT’s attention to potential labor abuses at the hotel.

“The workers at Le Méridien are going to continue active outreach to get individuals not to eat, sleep, or hold meetings in the hotel. They would like MIT to participate and respond by endorsing these efforts.”