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Brown University students convince Brown Corporation to divest from HEI Hotels & Resorts, 2008-2011
In 2008, students at Brown University’s Student Labor Alliance, a group of about 15-20 members, began a campaign to persuade their university to halt further investment in HEI Hotels Resorts. HEI, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, is one of the largest hotel management companies in the US and manages hotels such as Hilton, Hyatt, and Westin. HEI received significant fundraising from the investments of elite academic institutions, such as Brown University, an elite private university located in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as Yale, Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago. HEI employees and workers’ rights organizations, as well as the National Labor Relations Board, accused HEI for violating workers’ rights, including anti-union intimidation and overworking employees. s.
In September of 2008, members of the Brown Student Labor Alliance (SLA) approached the Brown investment office about the university’s closed book policy regarding their investment records, since they could not yet confirm whether Brown had invested in HEI Hotels and Resorts. However, the SLA urged Brown to halt any future investments, if they were in fact already invested in HEI, and to encourage peer educational institutions who had invested in HEI to do the same. The university later (exact date unknown) confirmed that it had invested in HEI since 2004. The students in SLA pointed to the fact that the University had previously emphasized the importance of aligning their investments with their ethical values, and asserted that the University must therefore take a stand against HEI’s alleged workers’ rights violations. Brown’s investment office directed the students to bring their concerns to the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies (ACCRIP), composed of Brown University faculty, staff, alumni, and students. On 27 October 2008, nine students from the Brown SLA submitted a letter to the Brown Daily Herald, the university’s newspaper, which shared these events, clarified the purpose of their campaign, and urged community members to sign their petition.
In the campaign’s beginning stages at the end of 2008, SLA hosted a variety of events to rally student support behind this campaign. On 26 October 2008, SLA brought an employee of the Hilton Hotel in Long Beach, California to speak about negative experiences at her hotel ever since HEI bought it four years before. SLA distributed and displayed posters to inform the students about HEI’s alleged workers’ rights violations and explain why Brown should should stop investing in HEI. They set up information booths from which they talked about their campaign, and even set up mattresses and bedding and invited their fellow students to make the bed in order to understand and empathize with the taxing physical labor involved in hospitality work.
For most of 2009, SLA presented their concerns to a variety of committees. After first refusing to confirm whether they invested in HEI, Brown eventually revealed that they had first invested in 2004. However, the University claimed they did not have sufficient evidence of HEI’s mistreatment of their employees to take any further action.
SLA and other individuals of the student body continued to apply pressure to the administration of Brown University throughout 2009. Their actions included rallies, protests, and picketing, marching into University Hall with vacuums and mops to ‘clean up Brown’s investments,’ and collecting signatures for their petition. The Brown SLA also used the school newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, and their own website to inform the rest of the community of their actions.
On February 1, 2010, members from Brown SLA met with the president of Brown University, Ruth Simmons. On February 9, the day before the Brown Corporation was to meet, activists from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), of which Brown SLA was an affiliate, flooded Brown Chancellor Thomas Tisch with phone calls. Students rallied outside the Brown Corporation meeting on February 10, 2010. In response to this student pressure and activism, President Ruth Simmons wrote a public letter to HEI CEO Gary Mendell, warning him that if Brown discovered truth in the workers’ rights allegations against the company, Brown would have to reconsider continuing to invest in the company. Although this was a letter of warning rather than of action, President Ruth Simmons’ letter was a milestone in the campaign, since she was the first university leader to publicly express concern regarding the workers’ rights allegations against HEI.
The campaign was relatively quiet between February and October of 2010. However, at the end of October, Brown students and HEI workers from across the nation, including those at Brown University, declared a week of action against HEI hotels. On November 2, 2010, student activists acted out a mock “wedding” between the Brown Investment Office and “HEI Corporate Greed.” This tactic, which involved music, costumes, wedding invitations, and culminated in a march down to the Investment Office, was video recorded and uploaded onto the Brown SLA website.
On December 6, 2010, the Brown Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies (ACCRIP) recommended that Brown University not invest further in HEI Hotels and Resorts due to “a persistent pattern of allegations involving the company’s treatment of workers and interference with their efforts to unionize, combined with repeated settlements.” In February of 2011, the Brown Corporation affirmed the recommendation, and it became official college policy.
The ability of Brown Student Labor Association to reveal Brown’s investment in HEI, collect student support beyond members of SLA, and gain the support of larger labor organizations such as the United Students Against Sweatshops, led to Brown University being the first institution to publicly declare that it would not invest further in HEI Hotels and Resorts due to the various allegations made against the treatment of their workers, which included cases of anti-union intimidation. The Brown Corporation did not withdraw existing investments, but instead pledged to not invest further HEI. As Brown SLA had hoped, this campaign influenced similar campaigns in peer universities invested in HEI, including Yale, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, and Notre Dame.