Labor Unions to Oppose Obama Nominee for Commerce Secretary

EXCLUSIVE: Organized labor to oppose President Obama’s nomination of Penny Pritzker for commerce secretary

National hotel workers union upset with Pritzker for labor practices at Hyatt Hotels, the source of her family’s fortune


Published: Monday, May 20, 2013, 1:22 PM
Updated: Monday, May 20, 2013, 1:57 PM

ObamaPritzkerChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama’ with his nominee for commerce secretary, Chicago business executive Penny Pritzker, at the White House earlier this month. A major union announced Monday that it will oppose her nomination.

Organized labor will break its silence and oppose President Obama‘s nominee for Commerce Secretary, Chicago’s Penny Pritzker, the Daily News has learned.

The decision stems from long-standing grievances with labor practices at the Hyatt Hotels chain, a source of her family’s fortune, and despite earlier reports that unions would not raise objections to the nomination.

Donald “D” Taylor, president of the 270,000-member union of hotel and restaurant workers known as UNITE HERE, confirmed the move to The News on Monday. His opposition was spurred by his just learning that the Senate Commerce Committee was moving up its confirmation hearing for Pritzker.

The union had been led to understand that hearing would take place perhaps well after the Memorial Day weekend. But the surprise decision to move up the hearing forced the union’s hand.

“We are opposed to the nomination of Penny Pritzker based on what has taken place at Hyatt,” Taylor said in a phone interview.

Taylor had not yet reached Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, to relay word of his move. Trumka has been a strong supporter of a long-standing union boycott against the Hyatt chain.

The union quickly assembled a late afternoon protest rally at the Hyatt that is part of McCormick Place, the large convention center in Chicago.

By coincidence, the giant annual national restaurant industry convention is under way there through Tuesday. McCormick Place is also where President Obama celebrated his re-election on election night.

UNITE HERE’s disputes with the hotel chain date to 2009 and the expiration of contracts at those Hyatt hotels that are unionized. There have been many demonstrations nationally related to its outsourcing previously unionized housekeeper positions at hotels in Boston and Baltimore and hiring what the union alleged were often temporary workers paid minimum wages.

The union has also alleged worker safety issues and argues the Hyatt track record run contrary to Obama’s call for more vigilant enforcement of safety regulation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. UNITE HERE alleges that housekeepers have been obligated to clean bathroom floors on their hands and knees rather than have access to a mop.

The company has vanquished some attempts to unionize workers at some of its hotels, including a lengthy campaign in San Antonio.

In Chicago, Pritzker is much admired in many circles. She also served Obama’s finance chairman for his 2008 election and was known to desire the Commerce Department post back then. It is believed that the White House backed off, partly due to the atmospherics of a self-styled populist president picking one of the nation’s richest women for the cabinet.

Forbes magazine estimates her wealth at around $2 billion and ranked her as the 277th richest American. Her unusually long financial disclosure statement also included word that she would dump a variety of investments and board memberships.

Shortly before her nomination, Pritzker, a confidant of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, stepped down from the board overseeing the city’s public schools.

In that position, she got high marks for dealing with a variety of difficult problems, such as a teachers strike last fall, and asking questions to the system’s executives about the system’s shaky finances and forcing them to be more publicly candid.

Whether union resistance will impact her nomination, especially among the Democratic majority, is unclear. It was no secret that her wealth, including her family’s extensive and legal use of offshore tax havens, would inspire questions. Far less attention has been paid to relations with unions.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate hierarchy, has strongly supported her selection.

The Commerce post has been vacant for more than a year, along with several other top posts in the department.

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