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Workers trying to unionize appeal to Sheryl Sandberg

Delmy Lemus is one of the workers attempting to unionize.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Delmy Lemus is one of the workers attempting to unionize.

With Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg coming to town next week, a group of housekeepers, nightclub servers, and other employees of a Boston hotel are trying to turn her now-famous campaign for empowering women in their favor as they move toward forming a union.

Unite Here Local 26, which is organizing workers at the Hilton DoubleTree Suites hotel near the Charles River, said it wanted to enlist Sandberg’s help after facing resistance from Hilton and receiving no encouragement from Harvard University, which owns the property where the hotel is located.

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So, the union decided, why not appeal to the author of the bestseller “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”?

Organizers asked Sandberg to meet with the hotel’s female workers. They started an online petition calling for her to become involved in their cause. And they created leaflets depicting the book’s cover, with faces of housekeepers replacing Sandberg’s, and a message that reads, “Sheryl Sandberg, will you lean in with the women of Harvard’s hotel?”

The Facebook chief operating officer, who is scheduled to deliver a Class Day address at Harvard Wednesday, has sent word she does not have time to host a “Lean In circle” with the hotel employees. Undeterred, the workers are planning to hand out the leaflets during Sandberg’s speech in Harvard Yard.

“It’s a way of continuing to say to Harvard that at every turn these women are going to be in your face,” said Brian Lang, president of Local 26, which represents hospitality industry workers. “It’s very clear to us that Harvard is calling the shots.”

Lang said the school already has about 600 unionized food service workers on campus.

Going after the property owner, along with the business owner, is a tactic unions sometimes use to garner more attention for their campaigns, said James Green, a labor historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston. And invoking a high-visibility landlord like Harvard is a natural fit. “It’s got the reputation of being a liberal institution,” he said.

Bill Murphy, Harvard’s director of labor and employee relations, said through a spokesman that it “will support any fair process for unionization that is agreed upon between Hilton and Local 26.”

But in a letter sent to the union last May, Murphy wrote that Harvard “respectfully declines Local 26’s request for the university to insert itself into this organizing campaign.”

The attempt to unionize the workers began more than a year ago, when 70 percent of the approximately 112 nonmanagerial workers at the DoubleTree — housekeepers, banquet servers, front desk agents, van drivers, and Scullers Jazz Club employees — signed a petition asking for a “fair process,” Local 26 said.

Such an agreement would allow them to discuss joining a union without retaliation from the company. When a group of workers and Harvard students tried to deliver the petition to the former general manager, he refused to accept it, according to Local 26.

Emma Perdomo (right) is depicted on a fliter modeled after Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book (left).

Emma Perdomo (right) is depicted on a fliter modeled after Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book (left).

In March, the union called for a boycott of the hotel and workers started asking regular guests to stay elsewhere.

A spokesman for Hilton Worldwide, which operates the DoubleTree Suites, said the appropriate way to determine if workers want to organize is through a secret ballot overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

Hilton also said most of the hotel’s workers do not want union representation.

“This belief was reinforced by the recent protest rally at the hotel that was attended by only a very small minority of our team members and by a nearly complete absence of employee support for subsequent unsuccessful rallies that the union has tried to organize,” the company said in a statement. “We have reason to believe that a large majority actively oppose any boycott.”

DoubleTree management has held meetings with employees, both in groups and one-on-one, to discourage them from unionizing, according to Local 26. It said management retaliated against one organizing committee member by putting fliers in the cafeteria and locker room calling him a “mole” and taking away extra shifts at Scullers.

Hilton declined to respond to the allegations.

Sandberg has been criticized for creating a movement aimed at financially well-off women, but her Lean In foundation says it has partnered with several organizations that serve lower-income women, including Dress for Success, and supports Lean In circles of domestic workers in San Francisco, as well as rescued sex slaves in Miami.

“The principles of Lean In are just as, if not more, important to women with lower incomes,” foundation spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an e-mail.

As part of the local hospitality workers union, DoubleTree workers would stand to get a bump in pay, more affordable health insurance, and standardized workloads.

DoubleTree workers are not necessarily on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Housekeeper Delmy Lemus, for instance, earns $15.82 an hour, plus tips, and has access to company-subsidized health insurance.

But Lemus, 33, said the family plan rates would consume nearly half her weekly paycheck. She decided to opt out of the benefit and enroll herself and her two daughters in MassHealth, the state insurance plan for low-income residents.

The job is physically demanding, Lemus said. When she was pregnant with her now 4-year-old daughter, Lemus began suffering sciatic nerve pain and was barely able to stand by the end of her shifts.

In her eighth month of pregnancy, she was assigned to the hotel’s laundry room. Lemus said she had to push carts loaded with linen and pull out heavy sofa beds.

“Almost every day I was crying,” the Revere resident said.

In a survey of dozens of DoubleTree workers done for Local 26 last summer, Harvard student Gabriel Bayard said every employee he interviewed complained of chronic pain, and nearly all said their workloads had increased in recent years.

More than 100 Harvard students have gotten involved in the DoubleTree campaign, including Sasanka Jinadasa, 21, president of the Radcliffe Union of Students, a feminist advocacy group. “If [Harvard] has a vested interest in the profits and the outcome of the company, it should care about what the workers want as well,” she said.

“Harvard has a duty to make sure that the standards of the DoubleTree are up to the standards of the workers on campus.”

Lemus, a single mother, wants to save up enough money to send her daughters to college and eventually start her own housecleaning service. She said “leaning in” to make her voice heard, and fighting for union protections, is the beginning of that process.

“We’re just housekeepers, people without education. But we work very hard,” she said. “We have dreams. . . . We don’t want to die cleaning rooms in a hotel.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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