Senate confirmation hearings for Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker’s nomination for U.S. Secretary of Commerce are scheduled for Thursday, but workers from the her family-owned hotel chain are already voicing their opposition to the selection.
“This is not somebody we want in Washington; this is a lady whose business model hurts workers,” said Demetrius Jackson, 25, a lifelong Chicagoan and convention service houseman at the Hyatt Regency Chicago for six years.
President Barack Obama nominated Pritzker, a board member for Hyatt Hotels Corp., to the post earlier this month, drawing criticism from Unite Here Local 1, which represents more than 1,500 Hyatt workers in Chicago.
More than 500 Hyatt workers staged a rally at the Hyatt McCormick Place Monday to declare their disapproval of Pritzker’s nomination. The protesters say the Pritzker family’s business model has lead Hyatt to single itself out as the nation’s worst hotel employer.
Contract negotiations that started in 2009 between Hyatt Hotels management and Unite Here Local 1 are at a stalemate, according to Carly Karmel, spokesperson for the union.
Karmel said negotiations with Hyatt Hotels are at a standstill because the union refuses to back down on two main issues: contracting language that would protect workers from having their job subcontracted to non-union members and workplace protections, specifically for housekeepers, to prevent injuries on the job.
Meanwhile, workers are being forced to contend with a wage freeze during the negotiations, she added.
“Under Ms. Pritzker’s leadership, Hyatt has led the industry in subcontracting and housekeepers are getting seriously injured,” said Karmel. “Hyatt has led the hotel industry in a race to the bottom.”
The U.S. Department of Commerce, according to the agency’s website, “promotes job creation, economic growth, sustainable development and improved standards of living for all Americans by working in partnership with businesses, universities, communities and our nation’s workers.” The Secretary of Commerce is the highest-ranking official in the department.
Jackson, who attended Monday’s protest, said he makes $14.51 per hour, but estimates he’d be now making an hourly rate of more than $16 if wages were not frozen.
“We do not need a person with this kind of business model to be the national standard of commerce,” he said.
Because he hasn’t gotten a wage increase in four years, Jackson says he’s had to make sacrifices, such as quitting college, so he can afford to provide for his wife and eight-year-old stepdaughter.
“As an owner and board member she could influence these contract negotiations or let us have our wage increases, but she hasn’t done that,” he said. “She’s distanced herself from us.”
In addition to co-owning and serving as a board member for Hyatt Hotels Corp. since 2004, Pritzker has a vested interest in Artemis Real Estate Partners, the Pritzker Realty Group, and PSP Capital Partners. She also served on the Chicago Board of Education from May 2011 to March of this year, stepping down from the post right before her nomination.
She has been a long-time supporter of Obama and served as national finance chair for his 2008 campaign. She also provided fundraising efforts for his 2004 bid for U.S. Senate, and for his presidential runs in 2008 and 2012.
"In the world of business Penny Pritzker has broken through the glass ceiling with her extraordinary intelligence and business acumen,” Durbin said in a statement on the day Pritzker was nominated. “I believe Penny will bring a new perspective to a Department that is charged with leading America forward in business growth and job creation.”
Kirk indicated he and Durbin would introduce Pritzker at Thursday's confirmation hearing.
"I believe that, based on her extensive experience in business, she will put jobs and economic growth first," said Kirk in a statement released Tuesday. "I met with Ms. Pritzker and found her to be someone who is willing to take on special interests, and I am confident her successful private-sector record and close ties to the business community will be beneficial to all of Illinois."
The Republican National Committee (RNC) spoke out against Pritzker as Obama’s choice for Commerce Secretary, making a statement headlined: “The New Addition To Obama’s Economic Team Is Another Political Ally With A History Of Controversial Business Practices.”
The RNC highlighted Pritzker’s role in the 2001 collapse of family-owned Superior Bank, for which she served as chairwoman. The Hinsdale savings and loan failed after providing subprime loans. The Pritzkers eventally paid the federal regulators $460 million to clear themselves of additional liabilities due to the banks failure, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of the 1,400 bank customers who were affected by the bank's failure were still owed money back in 2008, seven years after the financial institution had gone under.
Because Obama won’t have another opportunity for re-election, Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Pritzker’s “controversial” nomination to the Commerce Department could be deemed as a reward for her support during his candidacy.
“He could certainly afford to put forward appointments that might anger some groups because he doesn’t really have to worry about the political backlash; he’s only got a few years left,” he said. “She’s close to the president, she’s raising a lot of money for him and she helped make him a winner.”
Bruno added the Secretary of Commerce should stand for economic and commercial interests of both corporations and workers, something for which Pritzker does not have a reputation.
“That person should represent somebody who has all interests in mind, and should not be somebody who is perceived as being a representative of the 1 percent, which is the union’s criticism,” he said. “The Commerce Secretary should be somebody that is seen as understanding that economic development must generate benefits that flow to workers, and her background doesn’t really apply to that.”
In response to Monday’s rally, Hyatt issued a statement blaming the union for the negotiation standstill and accusing the labor organization of attempting to boost its membership.
“To get publicity for its campaign, Unite Here has targeted Hyatt board members and spread misinformation about Hyatt associates’ workplace experience,” said Katie Rackoff, director of Corporate Communications for Hyatt Hotels Corp., in an emailed statement. “Hyatt has offered the same wage and benefits terms that the union accepted at other hotels years ago in these four cities. It's a shame Unite Here leaders are sacrificing the needs of those they represent in order to build their membership. It's time they let our associates vote on new contracts.”
Karmel said Unite Here Local 1 is sending workers to Washington D.C. this Thursday to protest during the confirmation hearings.
Lesley Newson, 34, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency Chicago for more than nine years, said she is “overworked and underpaid.” She also participated in Monday’s rally.
A married mother of three, ages 17, 10 and six, Newson said she worked nine days in a row last week, cleaning approximately 16 rooms a day.
“I am tired, the prices of food and gas have gone up, but my pay is staying the same,” she said, adding she has to lift 100-pound beds every day to do her job.
Newson called on Pritzker to step in and provide workers with retro-pay and raises during contract negotiations.
“She could boost morale, and help us [in] getting what we’re asking for, which is just a living wage.”
Photos courtesy of Unite Here Local 1.