Why ‘unions don’t like’ Penny Pritzker

Pritzker’s nomination as Secretary of Commerce shows how the Democratic party is leaning towards the rich, notes Jaffe.

Barack Obama, Penny Pritzker
It is sad to see someone like Penny Pritzker, who has "demonstrated contempt for the rights and problems of working-class", as Secretary of Commerce [AP]

The long-expected announcement by President Barack Obama that he was nominating billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker to be Secretary of Commerce for his second term came lat Thursday – on May 2 – and with it the attendant reports explaining that Obama did not nominate her the first time around in part because “unions don’t like her”. 

Those reports rarely bother to explain why those unions (specifically UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union and the Chicago Teachers Union) “don’t like her”, making it sound as if it is simply a case of old grudges festering. It is not their fault, really – it is not like reporters had much time to learn the backstory as rumours have swirled since January or so that the Pritzker nomination was coming. Or that she was his first choice for the post the first time around, in 2008, but that her finances were too tangled up in messy things that her family would not want aired in public. Or that she has been a backer of the president since he was just an Illinois state senator that no one had heard of. 

Pritzker, Greg Palast points out, met Obama in Chicago and introduced him to her fancy friends, including former Treasury Secretary and neoliberal extraordinaire Robert Rubin. She raised some $745m for Obama’s 2008 presidential run, and was influential in 2012 as well, though quieter. Perhaps the campaign’s tough tone on wealth soured her, or perhaps the appearance of closeness to someone who, as Jodi Kantor and Nicholas Confessore in the New York Times noted at the time, was engaged in some of the same shady practices as Mitt Romney – and had her very own subprime scandal to boot. 

Hyatt’s treatment of workers 

UNITE HERE, in part, targeted Pritzker personally because of that closeness to the president, but the Hyatt’s treatment of workers is infamous. In one particularly egregious example, a Chicago Hyatt turned heat lamps on striking workers’ picket line on an already-hot day. The union charges that the chain uses subcontracted minimum-wage housekeepers to avoid paying decent rates, that its housekeepers have the highest injury rate of any hotel company, and that the chain has fired workers who spoke out against their treatment. Last year, supported by the AFL-CIO, the National Organization of Women, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and others, UNITE HERE launched a global boycott of Hyatt. 

The Chicago Teachers Union, too, has its complaints about Pritzker, placed on Chicago’s school board by former Obama chief of staff, now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. While Emanuel plans to close schools, ostensibly because of budget deficits, Rick Perlstein in The Nation explains that the city’s tax increment financing fund is carrying a fat surplus – and Pritzker, rather than pushing for that money to be spent on public schools, is building a new Hyatt with $5.2m in TIF funds from the city. (The chain claims the hotel is a franchise, and thus Pritzker and Hyatt are not directly benefitting from the money, but it is hard to see how this is not a conflict of interest.) 

Pritzker is also a big donor to notorious anti-union, education “reform” organisation Stand For Children. One should perhaps ask if the money being spent on “reform” would not serve children better by keeping schools in their neighbourhoods open. 

Inside Story Americas – Penny Pritzker: Cronyism or the right pick?

According to the New York Times this week, Pritzker refused the Commerce nomination in 2008 because the scrutiny would be too much. As Perlstein put it, “It took lawyers four years to figure out how to divest her from the sleaze.” But divest her they did, and now she’s headed for confirmation hearings. 

The Commerce department was founded in 1903; originally, it was “the Department of Commerce and Labor“, but labour was split off in 1913 after arguments that the interests of business and labour were often opposed. Some might argue that since there is a separate labour department now, it should not matter that the Commerce Secretary is on organised labour’s bad side. But leaving aside for a moment the fact that Commerce is in charge of trade, which is certainly a concern of working people across the world, the real problem here is yet another statement by Obama that the concerns of labour are just a minor nuisance to be overcome or ignored. 

Labour is not a narrow constituent group: labour is the only organised force funded by and speaking for the working class. Being “pro-labour” does not mean being in favour of more for the workers who currently have union protection on the job. It means understanding that it should be easier for workers to join a union, that workers who are excluded from collective bargaining by currently-standing labour law should have protections, that laws on the books mean nothing if people are too cowed at work to appeal to them. 

Cabinet position? 

The problem here is not that narrow interest group “hotel workers’ unions” or “teachers unions” will be angry if Obama gives Pritzker a Cabinet position. The problem is that someone who has demonstrated contempt for the rights and problems of working-class people will have a Cabinet position, will be in Obama’s ear far more than any representative of those working-class people who voted for him, will have the ability to shape and influence the policies of a Democratic party that is already leaning too far towards the rich. 

There is a reason why I say “working class” and not “workers” or “union members”. Because we still have too-high unemployment in this country, and we need policymakers who understand it and the fact that the wages are too damn low, the hours too long, the benefits too few and the conditions too harsh. 

When I spoke to Hyatt housekeeper Cathy Youngblood in October, she was spending her day off volunteering to get out the vote for Obama. She and many workers like her did not have thousands to give or wealthy friends to “bundle” donations; instead, they gave their time and spent hours knocking on doors, making phone calls and talking to co-workers. At the time, Youngblood was telling me about the Hyatt Andaz in West Hollywood and its decision to use iPods to track the housekeepers’ progress. Now she is campaigning, with UNITE HERE, to be placed on Hyatt’s board as a worker representative. 

Even with Pritzker’s nomination, she and the union are not calling for Obama to drop his benefactor from consideration – instead, they are calling for Youngblood to get Pritzker’s vacant Hyatt board slot. Last week, recording an interview for the podcast Belabored, which I co-host with Josh Eidelson, she said: “Her and the rest of the board, wouldn’t it be just dandy if they could sit down with me and understand what the problem is? Especially before she exits the board, if that’s the case.” 

Pritzker, Youngblood argues, would benefit greatly from listening to workers like her – without those voices, the company is run only by the ultra-wealthy, run only in pursuit of profit. With a cabinet full of wealthy businesspeople, what more can we expect from Obama? 

This is yet another question of which side the Democratic party is on: is it on the side of everyday Americans who got screwed by the financial crisis and are still getting screwed by wealthy employers whose profits are at record highs, or is it on the side of those wealthy employers? 

By choosing Pritzker, Obama has given another answer to that question.

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist, a rabblerouser and contributor to TruthoutAlterNetThe NationJacobin and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe