The McJunkin Report: Support Worker’s Rights at Mac–boycott sweatshop hotels

By Jonathan McJunkin

The current campaign to ask Macalester to participate in a boycott of hotels with bad or illegal labor practices, and to promote union hotels, is an exception to my personal rule not to promote causes in this space. Before I get into that, let me tell you of my days as a Whoppers Junior (C) craftsman . It’s a myth that working at a fast food restaurant lets you in on top-secret unsanitary practices, causing you to never eat there again. Fast food is generally disgusting, but at the same time almost clinically sanitary–at least based on my experience at Burger King. Though I was spared the foretold fingers-in-the-chili grossness, I still hated that job. You learn literally every skill you need in the course of two days, tops, and the shifts are spent either in ceiling-tile-counting boredom or frenzied, mindless activity during dinner rushes. Food service sucks—that’s an easy-to-prove thesis. My dad would always say that it’s good to work in a job you can’t stand a few times in your life, because it makes you appreciate whatever you decide to do in the future that much more. I definitely agree. At the same time, there’s a lot more to be gained from the bottom rung of the labor ladder than an appreciation of what it’s like to be “above” it. It’s really hard to say this without coming off as insufferably privileged, because in some ways I am (as are all of us) to even be at Macalester, but experiencing minimum wage work can potentially give you real insight into the world of work and the importance of workers rights. For example, you can see, at a small scale, what lopsided incentive and accountability structures mean to workers. At my Burger King, managers got bonuses if the time-per-order was below a certain point—usually something like 25 seconds. Workers didn’t get anything directly, besides the occasional free sandwich, so this led to increased incentives for managers to push workers to work at somewhat absurd speeds with workers seeing no benefit from this often stressful activity. At this level, this is no travesty, but carry it out to the level of hiring and management practices, and stuff can start to get pretty unseemly. In my perfect world, fast food would be the worst job there is, but in the world we live in now having your rights violated is worse than any amount of boredom and grease. Macalester’s actions, including how we spend our money, are more meaningful than any particular statement or building. Our college tries to be active in the area of social responsibility–we see it as integral to the college mission and image. To that end, we have the Social Responsibility Committee. One of the most recent and certainly most visible changes made through the SRC is the bottled water ban, through which we committed to “being a leader in the implementation of sustainable collegiate practices,” as the SRC website says. Participating in the hotel boycott would set a similar standard of commitment–Macalester will not only commit to fair labor practices on campus, but also to fair practices when its representatives are away. The accountability structure behind hotel labor violations is even screwier than Burger King bonuses. HEI Hotels and Resorts is not a recognizable brand to most people, but many of the hotels it owns are. At these hotels, HEI often subcontracts the staff to outside agencies like Hospitality Staffing Services in order to pay fewer wages and avoid liability. In this model, the incentive for accountability is simply not present: HEI, a virtually unknown firm, franchises out both the hotel and the workforce, all while the public brand of the property remains with a company that has little or nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the hotel. All this leads to a pattern that Macalester should not support with our travel dollars. In the Embassy Suites in Irvine California, a janitor who supported unionization reported being fired for forgetting to remove a washcloth and gloves from his belt and eating a leftover apple from a guest’s room–food that is usually thrown away. The same hotel has been found guilty of denying required breaks to eight employees by a California State Labor Commission, and was ordered to pay $41,000. Overall, HEI has now settled or been held liable for 32 separate wage and hour administrative complaints in that hotel alone. All this, coupled with a slew of ongoing labor relations board investigations into alleged abuse and intimidation, paints a picture of a climate for workers that is severely lacking in respect as well as questionably legal. HEI (and other companies under boycott) increases profits at the expense of its workers–all while suppressing labor unions through fear and intimidation. While we can disagree on the way to best achieve better conditions for workers, what we can all agree on is that people deserve to be treated with dignity by their employers. Macalester should take the obvious steps to put the weight of money and commitments behind its values of rights and dignity for workers. Unite Here has an online list of hotels under boycotts brought about by the workers themselves. They also have a directory of union hotels, which will easily allow the college to support good labor practices on top of its condemnation of bad ones. In doing this, we would also stand with other universities around the country, such as Yale and Princeton, that have divested from HEI, which is funded in large part by University endowments (Macalester has not invested and does not plan to). Though this piece has been heavy on policy, it wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t end on a grand sweeping theoretical note. Everyone comes to movements in their own ways. What attracted me to the worker’s rights movement was the most mundane modern adolescent experience of flipping burgers for school money. It made me more conscious of the structure of work and awakened my interest in worker’s rights as not just wages and safety but questions of fundamental dignity. On Monday Mar. 19, MPIRG’s Economic Justice Task Force (of which I am a member) will present our case for reworking Macalester’s travel policy to the SRC, at the same meeting where Adelante! will present their proposal to officially support the DREAM act. It is my hope that at the end of that day, Macalester will be a few steps closer to realizing its principles through distinctive and bold action. I hope realizing Macalester’s potential is as important to other students as it is to me. refresh –>