Victory at Cornell University
By: Molly Beckhardt
In the summer of 2011, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the Organizing Beyond Barriers program with UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco. During my internship, I learned about the hotel workers’ fight for decent working conditions at HEI hotels nationwide. I knew very little about labor in the hospitality industry before working with UNITE HERE, but having the opportunity to speak with hotel workers at the HEI Le Meridian hotel exposed me to the dark side of luxury in the hotel business.
When I learned that HEI invests university money to prop up its lucrative hotel franchise, I was furious. However, students on college campuses across the country are collaborating with hotel workers to pressure HEI into reforming its working conditions. I, as a Cornell student, knew that I could join in the fight as well. Last semester, I told my fellow students in the Cornell Organization for Labor Action about our school’s potential ties to the HEI sweatshop hotel business. Other students were just as upset as I was, so we sent a letter to our President to find out if our school was invested in HEI.
This was hard for me to coordinate because our group was simultaneously working on other labor campaigns and, of course, we are always trying to balance academic work with activism. On a more personal level, however, I haven’t had a great deal of leadership experience. Shortly after communicating with President Skorton about HEI, he responded in an email assuring us that Cornell was not invested in the company and had no plans to do so. This was an uplifting victory for worker and student power! It was also one of the first times that I took charge in a student campaign on my own (but with great support from UNITE HERE) and taught me how to follow through on organizing campaigns from beginning to end.