Harvard is drawing fire for inaction on labor troubles at the Boston-Cambridge DoubleTree Hotel, which is in a building Harvard owns in Allston. (Photo: Google)

Harvard is drawing fire for inaction on labor troubles at the Boston-Cambridge DoubleTree Hotel, which is in a building Harvard owns in Allston. (Photo: Google)

Anti-union actions at a Harvard-owned hotel in Allston drew strong reactions from residents and city officials Monday. In addition to supporting a boycott of the Boston-Cambridge DoubleTree Hotel, councillor E. Denise Simmons proposed urging the Boston City Council and others to take similar actions; Nadeem Mazen wanted to teleconference with Harvard officials to pressure them face to face to act to allow unionization; and Dennis Benzan had an even more personal approach.

“I was invited to attend Harvard University’s commencement. As a result of what I’m seeing happen at the DoubleTree Hotel and the inaction of Harvard, I am hereby withdrawing any consideration I have to attending the commencement until they take this matter seriously and respect the dignity of the workers,” Benzan said. (Update on May 28, 2014: Benzan and councillor Marc McGovern affirmed in a press release they would be boycotting the ceremonies the next day.)

Harvard owns the building at 400 Soldiers Field Road, Allston, that hosts the Hilton-run hotel and Scullers Jazz Club. Workers told management in March 2013 that they wanted a fair process to decide on unionization, but as of Monday the vote had been stymied by managerial resistance, representatives said.

Hilton Worldwide prefers another vote method, the company told The Harvard Crimson, and Harvard says it will support “any fair process of unionization agreed upon by Hilton and its employees.”

Hotel workers sat as a group Monday wearing the bright red T-shirts of the Unite Here labor group and standing together at times as representative members spoke during public comment about their hard work and loyalty for the company, which they felt responded with low wages and poor working conditions.

Strong reaction

Resident and labor activist Vicky Steinitz, of Cambridge United for Justice With Peace, compared Harvard’s treatment of its own direct employees with those at the hotel it has owned since 2005 and said, “This is hypocrisy, in my view, of the worst kind.” John Bach, Harvard’s Quaker chaplain, saw similar disconnect when invoking memories of the school’s actions 50 years ago during the Vietnam war, when its graduates led the nation into war while its students were arrested for protesting it. “What kind of Harvard do we want to encourage to be our neighbor?” he asked.

Mazen said he saw Harvard as a good neighbor who probably hadn’t acted on worker issues at the DoubleTree because its officials had too many other things on its plate. A teleconference could help add pressure, he said.

But the rhetoric of other councillors – four of whom protested at the DoubleTree last month alongside students, workers and their supporters – were at times as strong as their constituents, with Marc McGovern saying managers “are not treating working men and women fairly, and we’re not going to stand for that.”

There are plenty of other hotels in the area that have unionized workers and are doing fine, councillor Leland Cheung said, and as a Harvard graduate he was far less understanding of the university’s failure to act on labor issues at the DoubleTree:

Actions like this make me ashamed. That Harvard would hide behind the LLC of a management company and not institute the same kind of fair practices that it teaches its students to go out and do in the world is just unacceptable. This isn’t just about workers. This is about an entire community. Their plight is our plight. If they’re not getting good health coverage, they’re not paying into the system that covers us all. If they’re not getting a reasonable wage, they’re not able to go out and support small businesses and the economy of the community. They’re not able to live here … What [workers] are asking for is not onerous for the hotel, it’s just a fair process.

The policy order, originally presented April 7 by Simmons and Cheung, passed unanimously.

This post was updated May 2, 2014, to reflect that workers’ March 2013 actions were for a fair process for unionization, rather than a bid to join a specific union.