A Penny Earned

Major Obama bundler Penny Pritzker nominated for commerce secretary

Barack Obama, Penny Pritzker / AP
May 2, 2013

President Barack Obama’s nomination of billionaire hotel heiress and major campaign donor Penny Pritzker could drive a wedge through his coalition of labor supporters.

"Penny understands that just as great companies strengthen the communities around them, strong communities of skilled workers also help companies thrive," Obama said in the Rose Garden announcement on Thursday.

Leaders from the UNITE HERE hospitality union have blasted the Pritzker family for abusing thousands of employees of its Hyatt Hotel chain. Union officials also targeted Penny Pritzker specifically for the "reprehensible" business practices at her own company, TransUnion, which sells credit reports about potential employees to employers. The union claims this leads to discriminatory hiring practices.

A UNITE HERE spokeswoman declined to comment on the nomination, instead directing the Washington Free Beacon to an official statement calling on Hyatt's board to replace Pritzker with a hotel worker to address the hotel's "mistreatment of housekeepers."

"I'm confident that Ms. Pritzker will do her best to help our country succeed," UNITE HERE member Cathy Youngblood said in the release, "but if Hyatt is going to succeed, they need to change—I believe they need someone like me to help."

"It's a problem that a member of the president's job council is selling a product that has a discriminatory impact on job seekers," Tom Snyder of UNITE HERE told Politico in 2011.

Pritzker dedicated the clout of her $1.85 billion net worth to President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign. She soon found her way onto the President’s Jobs Council and became national co-chair of the president’s re-election campaign, which has since transformed into an outside spending group. Pritzker bundled more than $1.3 million for Obama’s presidential runs and contributed $250,000 to his 2013 inauguration.

But Pritzker’s wealth has been a liability in the past. The New York Times reported in 2012 that she was denied the commerce secretary job in 2008 because "president-elect [Obama] had no interest in a confirmation fight at a time of public anger over the advantages of wealth."

Pritzker’s fortune has been at the center of a number of civil rights and labor disputes.

Striking Chicago teachers protested in front of a Hyatt hotel owned by the Pritzker family in 2012. Pritzker sat on the Chicago Board of Education until her resignation in March.

Additionally, UNITE HERE’s Chicago chapter, Local 1, slammed Pritzker for decreasing her property tax burden when the city was running huge deficits and cutting services and teacher benefits. The Pritzker family and its business interests appealed its property tax rates more than 70 times since 2003, according to a UNITE HERE study. Pritzker succeeded in lowering the assessment on her $10.4 million mansion "every year from 2006 to 2009, including a 62 percent reduction in 2006 and a 42 percent reduction in 2009."

Local 1 did not respond to calls for comment.

"When billionaires pay less taxes, we all pay the price," Linda O'Neal, a waitress with three children, said in a union press release. "I don't make the kind of money the Pritzkers make, but I pay my fair share of taxes. It's time for Chicago's wealthiest family to stand up and stop hurting our communities."

UNITE HERE has been a major supporter of Obama and has taken a leading role in the push for immigration reform. The Chicago chapter released a three-minute campaign ad called "Inspired" during the 2012 campaign highlighting Obama’s solidarity with the union, including his participation in a rally outside Chicago’s storied Congress Hotel where UNITE HERE members have been on strike since 2003.

"Obama was out there [on the picket line]; he marched with us," one UNITE HERE member said.