Yesterday evening, between 4 - 6 p.m. a picket line with approximately 30 participants including Le Meridien hotel workers, union organizers, and MIT students gathered in front of the hotel located at 20 Sidney Street. Picketers called for hotel guests to support a worker-led boycott by checking out of the hotel. The picket line was planned for last night in order to attract the attention of hotel guests who are participating in the Eastern Division of the Community College Humanities Association conference, which is scheduled to take place at Le Meridien from November 15th-17th.
A labor dispute has been brewing at Le Meridien since March 2012 when 70 percent of the workers signed a document requesting that the hotel management maintain a neutral stance as workers debated whether or not to join Local 26, the Massachusetts hospitality workers union. According to Brian Lang, president of Local 26, the hotel management locked their doors and refused to accept the request, which was later mailed to them. Hotel management has yet to agree to a written neutrality agreement.
Heather Nichols, a front desk agent at the hotel who participated in the picket line while on break, informed The Tech that guests arriving at the hotel were curious to know more about the protest. “They’ve been asking what’s going on. Some guests are concerned that they will be woken up at night. One guest came in and shouted at the management ‘What have you guys done?’” she said.
Adam Neugebauer, a second year grad student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), was among the picketers. Neugebauer wrote a letter to The Tech in response to Nate Nickerson, MIT’s director of communications’ statement that MIT would remain neutral in the dispute between Le Meridien workers and management.
“It seems disingenuous for MIT to claim a neutral stance on this debate when they own the property and list the hotel as a preferred vendor. As a member of the MIT community I feel that I could and should do something about this”, Neugebauer said last night at the protest.
Neugebauer is not alone. 14 MIT faculty members have signed a document stating their support of the boycott. Union organizers are also making efforts to reach out to MIT student organizations such as the Students of Color Committee, which scheduled a meeting to speak with hotel workers following yesterday’s protest.
Cambridge public officials have also requested that the Institute lend its support to the workers. In late October, Cambridge City Councilor Marjorie Decker, Vice Mayor Denise Simmons and State Representative Timothy Toomey sent letters to MIT president Rafael Reif, strongly advocating for MIT’s support of the boycott.
In her letter, Councilor Decker states “MIT is one of the hotel’s biggest customers. We urge MIT to stop doing business with this hotel until they treat workers with respect and dignity.”
Representative Toomey writes “the workers of this hotel are taking a dramatic step in calling for a boycott of their own place of employment, and I feel that we must respect that as a community.”
Vice Mayor Simmons indicates to President Reif that the City Council passed a resolution in support of the boycott and that “the entire city council, barring one absent colleague, voted in favor of this resolution.”
At the time of writing, none of the public officials who wrote letters to President Reif regarding the workers’ strike had received a response.
On November 8th, Jeremy McBride, Director of Sales at Le Meridien responded to The Tech’s October 23rd article covering the labor dispute by sending an unsolicited e-mail to Jimmy Kontoravdis, an MIT employee who handles travel for the Institute’s Sourcing and Procurement Office.
In this e-mail, McBride states that the hotel management “supports the secret ballot election process conducted by the National Labor Relations Board to protect our employees’ right to vote in a neutral private environment.” McBride continues by criticizing UNITE HERE Local 26’s (the Boston union of hospitality workers) actions claiming that the union “refuses to participate in an election process and has chosen instead to harass our employees.”
McBride was unwilling to comment further on the labor dispute by phone, stating that the hotel’s stance was made clear in his e-mail to Kontoravdis. This e-mail was also circulated to an unknown number of employees in MIT’s sourcing and procurement office.
Lang claims that McBride’s statements in support of an election are a “typical response” from HEI, a company with a long history of labor complaints. The hotel management can appeal election results to the National Labor Relations Board multiple times, Lang explained, ultimately delaying the unionization process.
Instead of an election, Le Meridien workers want the hotel management to agree to a card check in which workers sign authorization cards stating they would like to unionize. Both the employer and employees must agree to recognize the results of a card check before the process begins in order for the results to be valid.
The distinction between a card check and a secret ballot is that workers can see how the other workers vote in a card check whereas a secret ballot is secret. Additionally, Lang explained that in comparison to elections, employers are unable to appeal the results of a card check thus allowing unionization to take place at quicker rate than what may be possible with elections. Thus far, Le Meridien management has not responded to workers’ request for a card check.
Last night’s protest follows an earlier picket line held on November 8th when Local 26 organizers and Le Meridien workers gathered in front of the hotel. Bob Boudreau, a bartender who has been with Le Meridien for 11 years, was among the attendees.
Boudreau claimed that due to staff cuts workers must perform multiple duties. “I’ll be at the bar taking orders, making drinks, and then the phone rings and the management doesn’t like the phone to ring more than three times.”
Boudreau claims that staff shortages impair the hotel’s ability to serve its guests, “We are a small staff trying to keep up the service level in a high end restaurant. The service suffers and the morale of the workers suffers as well.”