Macalester considers ban of HEI, other ‘corrupt’ hotels

By Matea Wasend

One of the latest issues confronting Macalester’s Social Responsibility Committee (SRC) is one seemingly far from the realms of a private liberal arts college: hotels with bad business practices. But Macalester’s faction of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group would ask you to look again. “Sports teams travel all the time,” said Sarah Knispel ’15, a member of MPIRG’s Economic Justice Taskforce. “Music groups travel, speech teams travel, political orgs travel. Our admissions officers, our staff and faculty travel to promote Mac. But while we are doing all of these things we pride ourselves in doing, we are potentially contributing to corruption.” Knispel, along with two other members of the task force, met with the SRC on Monday to recommend Macalester take an institutional stand against hotels that mistreat their workers. “We believe that we have consumer power as well as symbolic power to boycott properties that violate workers’ basic human rights,” Leewana Thomas ’14 told SRC members. The stand would constitute a ban on using Macalester money to fund stays in any hotels on Hotel Worker Rising’s boycott list of some 42 properties nationwide. The task force also recommended Macalester arrange for stays in unionized hotels if possible, although this would not be mandated as part of their proposal. The proposal also asks Macalester to send letters to the banned hotels, explaining that the boycott policy is a direct “reaction to their unfair, illegal and unethical labor practices.” If the SRC supports the task force’s recommendation, it will follow the lead of Macalester College Student Government (MCSG), which unanimously passed a resolution to boycott the 42 listed hotels earlier this month. This will likely translate to a ban on use of MCSG funds to stay at such hotels, and will mainly affect student orgs. MPIRG’s hotel campaign was inspired by Hotel Workers Rising!, a country-wide movement that has arisen in recent years to protest hotels with bad business practices. The group aims to better working conditions for hotel laborers by organizing and supporting demonstrations and unionization, and it maintains a list of hotels to “steer clear of” for their maltreatment of workers. Especially prevalent on the list are properties under HEI Hotels and Resorts and Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, two companies that have faced harsh criticism for violating basic workers’ rights. Among other offenses, HEI has purportedly forced workers to labor through their breaks and threatened to terminate their employment if they unionize. Hyatt has ignored allegations of sexual harassment and threatened union workers, and its housekeepers reportedly suffer the highest injury rates of any such workers in the country. The issue has lately gained special attention in the college arena because HEI is largely funded by higher ed schools with large endowments. Recent student backlash has led schools like Brown, UPenn, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth to issue statements saying they will not reinvest in HEI as a direct consequence of their poor treatment of workers. Macalester is not among the schools that invest in HEI, but members of the Economic Justice taskforce do not think that exonerates the school. “We didn’t think Mac was free of responsibility since we still patronize hotels that treat their workers poorly,” Thomas said. If they gain the support of the SRC, the task force’s proposal will likely translate into a mandate against use of Macalester money to stay at any boycotted hotels. That ban would range from athletic stays to class field trips to arranging accommodations for out-of-town speakers. “We think that students and parents and alumni and our entire network would not want our dollars going into hotels that treat their workers poorly,” she told the SRC. The exceptions to the rule, the task force members explained at the SRC meeting, would be when a conference pre-books a student or faculty member at a boycotted hotel or when safety concerns arise from staying at another hotel. Students, faculty, staff and “speakers or other important figures of the college” would be strongly encouraged (though not required) to stay in unionized hotels, which the task force associated with good labor practices. A searchable database of union hotels would be provided on the Macalester website. “Having a union in a hotel is a sure mark that workers in that hotel will have better working conditions than workers at a boycotted hotel,” Josie Ahrens ’14 told SRC members. As they await the SRC’s verdict, which will hopefully come in the next month, Thomas and her task force peers aim to drum up campus support for the hotel boycott. They’ve gotten the thumbs-up from different corners of campus—including official endorsements from Adelante!, Paul Dosh, Leola Johnson and the entire biology department—but hope to soon make the issue more visible, especially to students. “Getting support from the larger student body is an important step now,” said Thomas. Editor’s note: Opinions editor Jonathan McJunkin ’14 is on MPIRG’s Economic Justice Taskforce and took part in the presentation to the SRC on Monday. refresh –>