Hyatt workers union protests Pritzker Commerce nomination

Tim Cavanaugh Contributor
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Penny Pritzker, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Commerce Department, is getting more heat from the left than from the right, as a prominent hotel workers union plans to protest her nomination this week.

UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union, will launch protests in the Windy City ahead of Pritzker’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday.

The union says it will bring out thousands of employees of Hyatt Hotels to protests a “wage freeze” by the hotel chain, to which Pritzker is an heiress and has been a director since 2004.

“Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst hotel employer in the United States, leading the industry in outsourcing practices that destroy good jobs and hurt housekeepers,” UNITE HERE said in a statement. “In a first for the hotel industry OSHA recently issued a companywide letter to Hyatt warning it of the hazards its housekeepers face on the job.”

This is not the first time Pritzker has run afoul of organized labor. Last year Chicago public school teachers, upset by what they viewed as Pritzker’s anti-union actions as a member of the city’s school board, staged a massive protest outside the Hyatt in Hyde Park. Left-wing groups began agitating against Pritzker when rumors of her impending Commerce secretary nod surfaced in February.

“In Chicago, Hyatt workers have endured a four-year wage freeze amid contract negotiations that have stalled around issues of subcontracting and safer working conditions for housekeepers,” UNITE HERE said. “In recent months, workers have appealed to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), which owns Hyatt McCormick Place, to push Hyatt to provide wage increases that would give financial relief to workers.”

Pritzker, the daughter of Hyatt co-founder Donald Pritzker, was a major bundler for Obama’s 2008 campaign and national co-chair of Obama for America 2012. From 1991 to 1994 she chaired Illinois-based Superior Bank, during which time the bank embarked on a strategy of aggressive subprime lending that led to its collapse in 2001.

Despite this history and her long immersion in Chicago crony capitalism, GOP Commerce Committee members seem to be taking her free-market credentials at face value.

“I’m certainly leaning toward supporting her,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, told Bloomberg Monday.

Last week Pritzker had a cordial meeting with South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the committee’s ranking Republican.

Update: A Hyatt representative provided the following statement about the protest:

“To get publicity for its campaign, UniteHere has targeted Hyatt board members and spread misinformation about Hyatt associates’ workplace experience. Our associates in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Waikiki have endured nearly four years without a wage increase because UniteHere leaders won’t allow our associates to vote on new contracts unless Hyatt agrees to impose unionization on employees at other Hyatt hotels. We respect associates right to choose and we firmly believe they should be allowed to say “yes” or “no” to a union with a democratic secret-ballot election.

“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 UniteHere 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.

“The satisfaction and wellbeing of Hyatt associates is fundamental to the success of our business, because they are the ones who provide hospitality to our guests. Our great workplace environment is why Hyatt housekeepers in the U.S. have worked, on average, 12 years with us. More than half of our approx. 40,000 associates in the U.S. have worked with Hyatt for more than 10 years, and more than 6,000 associates have been with us for more than 20 years.

“Hyatt has always been a great employer in the hospitality sector with competitive wages and benefits. Hyatt has even received numerous local and national awards, including being selected last month for Gallup’s Great Workplace Award for the second consecutive year, based on a global, independent survey of Hyatt associates.”

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