President Barack Obama has yet to officially name a Commerce Secretary nominee for his second term, but rumor has it that he’s already made up his mind: According to The Washington Post, “there’s chatter” that Hyatt hotels scion and board member Penny Pritzker is the president’s choice.
If the buzz turns out to be true, then Pritzker’s ascension to the national stage could further strain Obama’s tense relationship with the labor movement. That’s because the Hyatt Hotel chain—co-founded by Pritzker’s father, Donald N. Pritzker—is currently engaged in a lengthy and acrimonious dispute with the hospitality workers union UNITE HERE.
A UNITE HERE-maintained campaign website alleges that Hyatt is “the worst hotel employer in America,” and that it has a lengthy track record of labor abuses including unpaid wages and crushing workloads. Hyatt spokespeople deny this, saying, “Contrary to what UNITE HERE says, Hyatt provides industry-leading wage and benefits packages, maintains an outstanding workplace safety record, and is a recognized leader in promoting a diverse workforce.”
In mid-2012, the union called for a global boycott of all Hyatt hotels. More recently, a Hyatt in Baltimore, Maryland reached a settlement with a UNITE HERE local over an unfair labor practices complaint filed against the hotel. The hotel agreed to rehire with back pay two employees they had earlier fired—allegedly, according to UNITE HERE, in retaliation for internal organizing.
Though Pritzker is only a director of Hyatt, and not a member of the corporate management team, she has been personally targeted by UNITE HERE protests on a few occassions— in 2009 a group of fired housekeepers appealed their termination to directly to her. The Chicago Teachers Union also targeted Pritzker, a member of the Chicago Board of Education, during the 2012 Chicago teachers strike.
Pritzker’s ties to the Obama administration go back to 2008, when she was the Obama campaign’s national finance chairwoman. She was rumored to be the nominee to be his first commerce secretary, though that rumor ultimately didn’t pan out.
If Pritzker were indeed nominated this time around, she wouldn’t be the only potential cabinet secretary with a history of union opposition: Jack Lew, Obama’s current chief of staff and nominee for Treasury Secretary, helped destroy NYU’s graduate student union when he was an executive at the university.