NEWS

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November 25, 2008

Activists criticize University endowment investments

Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), a workers’ rights Registered Student Orginization, urged the University to reconsider its investment in Hei Hotel and Resorts in a letter to President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum last week. The group claims the company, which does not hire union workers, mistreats its employees.

In the letter, SOUL asked the University to refuse any subsequent requests to invest in the company, which SOUL claims forces housekeepers to work in unsafe conditions with unreasonably high workloads. According to SOUL members, Hei employees have been forced to clean twice as many rooms as housekeepers in hotels that employ union labor. As of Monday, SOUL had not received a response from the administration.

The University has historically declined to publicly discuss individual investments.

“If the University were to take a political stance on an issue outside its core mission, through its investments or other means, it would only diminish its distinctive contribution, which is to provide a home in which scholars and students can freely hold and challenge the widest range of social institutions and beliefs,” said University spokesman Steve Kloehn, citing the Kalven Report, a policy that restricts the University from taking political positions that could endanger its culture of academic freedom.

Security Exchange Commission filings, which companies submit to the federal government, state that as of February the University had invested at least $25 million in the Connecticut-based hotel-operator Hei. The documents were provided by fourth-year and SOUL member Luke Carman.

As a hotel-operator company, Hei owns and operates over 30 hotels across the country.

According to Hans Schoenberg, a student and hotel worker activist at Yale, Hei receives over 80 percent of its funding from university endowments. The U of C is one of at least 10 universities known to have invested in Hei, according to Hei documents provided by Schoenberg.

Central to SOUL’s argument is Hei’s workers’ rights to unionize. According to Carman, executives at Hei have continually blocked attempts by the company’s employees to join hotel workers’ unions.

Spearheading the national campaign against Hei has been Unite Here, an international hotel-workers union. They have fought to secure a card-check neutrality agreement, a means of achieving unionization by a majority vote among the workers agreed upon by the company’s management.

Despite the letter’s language to the contrary, Carman, who worked as an intern for Unite Here this past summer, claims that the focus of the campaign is not the University’s divestment from Hei, but the workers’ ability to organize.

“The ultimate goal of the campaign is to secure a card-check neutrality agreement for the Hei workers, and we’re going to help with that however it’s possible,” he said.

The U of C activists are the most recent among a number of schools across the country to take their administration to task for investing in Hei. At Yale and Notre Dame, the hotel workers’ campaign is part of a larger effort to achieve more transparency on the use of endowment funds, Carman said. He added, however, that the same approach might not be productive at the U of C, since he viewed the University as less open to endowment-related discussions compared to other schools.

Last year, campus activists pushed the administration to discontinue investments in Darfur. The University ultimately decided against divestment, citing the Kalven Report, which was drafted in 1967 in response to student protests over the Vietnam War.

Carman said that SOUL’s members are considering the next step in their campaign and added that the group will keep in mind the specific qualities of the University.

“The University of Chicago isn’t Notre Dame or Yale or Harvard,” he said. “The investment practices are different, so the campaign is going to be different. We haven’t a set procedure yet. The goal is the same: to secure [a] card-check neutrality agreement.”