At 5 p.m. yesterday evening a crowd of approximately 200 gathered at the steps of the Cambridge City Hall to demonstrate their support for employees of Le Méridien Hotel, located at 20 Sidney Street in Cambridge. At approximately 5:40, the crowd marched from City Hall to Le Méridien where the protest continued as hotel guests looked on from their tables in the hotel restaurant.
The workers and management at Le Méridien have been engaged in a labor dispute since March 2012 when the workers attempted to present a formal request to management that they agree to remain neutral while employees debated the possibility of joining UNITE HERE Local 26, the Massachusetts union of hospitality workers. Management refused to accept the request, which was later mailed to them. In the months following, management has continued to deny the request for neutrality while Le Méridien workers have staged regular Thursday evening picket lines at the Hotel’s entrance.
Declan Bowman and Talia Leonard, sophomores at Boston University, were among the attendees at yesterday’s protest. “The fight for equal rights is a fight for everyone,” said Bowman. Talia concurred, “These workers deserve to be treated like human beings.”
Heather Nichols, a front desk associate at Le Méridien also in attendance yesterday evening, said the Hotel’s management has made some attempts at improving working conditions in response to workers’ complaints that they are under compensated and overworked. “A couple of months ago we got raises, and they [the management] have hired more people to work at the front desk. Their respect for us has increased,” said Nichols; “But there is still a long way to go.”
Bob Boudreau, a bartender at Le Méridien, who waved hello to his co-workers in the hotel restaurant yesterday as he marched by, explained that employees have two main demands: “We want the hotel management to agree to remain neutral while we consider joining the union and to agree not to appeal the results of a vote to join, if it should come to that.”
Boudreau was among a group of five hotel employees and student union organizers that traveled to Connecticut last week to the headquarters of HEI Hotels and Resorts, the hotel investment group that owns Le Méridien on Sidney Street. The group hoped to present senior management with a petition for neutrality signed by 70 percent of the hotel’s workers.
“They would not meet with us,” Boudreau said. According to Boudreau, eventually a member of HEI’s human resource department was sent to speak with the group. The HR representative said that while HEI would not accept a neutrality agreement, they would agree not to repeal the results of a free and open vote. Boudreau says that the group was eventually escorted out of the building by security staff.
Yale students were among those that accompanied Boudreau to the HEI headquarters last week. Yale University is one of several universities that have agreed not to invest additional endowment funds with HEI Hotels and Resorts following pressure from students that highlight a long history of labor complaints against the company.
Alex Chen, a first year student and member of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) at Harvard University was in attendance yesterday evening. “I’m here because Harvard is also invested in HEI. While the University has agreed not to invest more funds in the company, it is still invested as a third party. Our money is still in the Hotel here. We are still profiting from it.”
Chen stated that while there is some pressure from students to convince Harvard to divest from HEI, this “claw back” of funds is not at the top of SLAM’s agenda for the moment.
Boudreau expressed his desire that MIT students would become involved in the labor movement. “The administration would really listen to students,” said Boudreau.
MIT has a long history with the Hotel at 20 Sidney Street, which was originally owned by a partnership between the Institute and Forest City Enterprises. “The Hotel@MIT,” as it was formerly named, was sold to HEI Hotels & Resorts in 2007. 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.
At the time of writing the Institute’s Sourcing and Procurement Office continued to list Le Méridien in Cambridge as a “preferred” travel vendor and to conduct regular business there. On April 9, MIT event planners, including Gayle Gallagher, senior director of Institute events and protocol, will hold an etiquette training at the Hotel for the event planning staff.