No Friend of the People

Union plans protest of Obama commerce nominee

President Obama and Penny Pritzker / AP
May 20, 2013

One of the largest hospitality unions in the nation will protest President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary nominee on Thursday, the first day of her confirmation hearings.

UNITE HERE, which represents tens of thousands of hotel and restaurant workers, will gather in front of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago to demonstrate against Penny Pritzker, one of Obama’s largest campaign bundlers.

"The Commerce Secretary’s first concern should be to create good, family sustaining jobs for all Americans," Hyatt housekeeper Cathy Youngblood said in a release. "Under Pritzker’s direction, Hyatt has led the hotel industry in a race to the bottom by aggressively subcontracting out career hotel jobs to minimum wage temps. This is not the model that will lead our country to a bright economic future."

Pritzker’s father founded the Hyatt Hotel chain and bequeathed a multi-billion dollar fortune to her and her siblings. She has dedicated her fortune to liberal politics, especially Obama’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate and the presidency.

UNITE HERE has been engaged in a bitter battle with Hyatt for almost a decade, lobbying for better pay and benefits and accusing the company of "reprehensible" behavior and unfair resistance to unionization.

However, the union maintained silence about Pritzker’s nomination as it campaigns for immigration reform and other liberal agenda items. Pritzker bundled more than $1.3 million for Obama’s presidential runs and contributed $250,000 to his 2013 inauguration. She was a campaign reelection co-chair for Obama in 2012 and served on the president’s jobs council.

When Obama announced Pritzker’s nomination in the Rose Garden on May 2, the union focused on filling her seat on the hotel’s board of directors rather than her role in the administration.

"I’m confident that Ms. Pritzker will do her best to help our country succeed, but if Hyatt is going to succeed, they need to change—I believe they need someone like me to help," Youngblood said at the time.

The union did not mince words on Monday, accusing Pritzker of unfairly treating her workers.

"Our wages have been frozen since 2009, and our families are suffering," Cristian Toro, a banquet server at the Hyatt Regency McCormick, said in the release. "Hyatt has set a bad example for the rest of the hotel industry, and we’re taking a stand."

A Hyatt spokeswoman accused the union of engaging in "misinformation" in its campaign to derail the Pritzker nomination.

"Our associates in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Waikiki have endured nearly four years without a wage increase because UNITE HERE leaders won't allow our associates to vote on new contracts unless Hyatt agrees to impose unionization on employees at other Hyatt hotels," the hotel said in a statement. "It's a shame UNITE HERE leaders are sacrificing the needs of those they represent in order to build their membership."

Pritzker’s nomination has driven a wedge in the Obama coalition and the union sought to highlight its supporters at other liberal interest groups.

UNITE HERE’s release invoked support from the National Organization of Women (NOW), the National Council of La Raza, and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce in its fight against Hyatt.

Some of those groups appear to be sitting out the coming nomination fight. NOW embraced Pritzker’s nomination when it was announced. A La Raza spokesman said that the group signed on to support the union’s cause against Hyatt, but "had no idea" why the union included the group in the release.

Neither the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, nor Hyatt returned calls for comment.