Commerce Secretary nominee tied to ongoing labor union struggle

President Barack Obama announces that he will nominate Chicago business executive Penny Pritzker (R) for Commerce Secretary in the Rose Garden at the White House May 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama announces that he will nominate Chicago business executive Penny Pritzker (R) for Commerce Secretary in the Rose Garden at the White...

President Obama nominated Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker to be Commerce Secretary on Thursday, which also happened to be her birthday.

"For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation," he quipped during the public Rose Garden announcement. "It's going to be great."

That joke was a reference to the skepticism and intense scrutiny with which nearly all of Obama's high-profile nominees receive from Senate Republicans. But Pritzker's nomination will also roil the Democratic base, particularly organized labor. That's because Pritzker sits on the board of directors for Hyatt Hotels, the national hotel chain co-founded by her father, which is currently engaged in a protracted struggle with the hospitality workers union UNITE HERE.

"Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst hotel employer in America," according to a UNITE HERE-maintained website called Hyatt Hurts. The allegations which UNITE HERE has brought against the company include wage theft, unreasonable workloads, unjust firings, and conditions which lead to high injury rates.

Pritzker has been a repeated target of UNITE HERE demonstrations, but with her nomination the campaign has moved into a new phase. Now the union is requesting that Hyatt appoint a worker to fill her seat on the board of directors.

"If they put someone like me on the Hyatt board of directors, that would certainly send a signal that corporate American is listening extensively to what workers on the ground have to say," said Cathy Youngblood, a Hyatt housekeeper in West Hollywood and the architect of the union's "Someone Like Me" campaign to place a worker on the Hyatt board of directors. In December 2012, she kicked off the campaign by submitting a resolution to Hyatt corporate headquarters.

Since January, Youngblood has been traveling around the country and hearing the concerns of other Hyatt workers. Their concerns include things that Hyatt corporate leadership should want to hear about, she said, and that they could easily fix.

"We need adjustable tools, we need lighter vacuum cleaners," she said. "It's things that could easily be improved with a common sense approach." Replacing flat sheets with fitted sheets could also easily prevent repetitive motion injuries, she said.

Thus far, Hyatt has yet to respond to Youngblood's proposal. But with Pritzker's nomination, UNITE HERE sees a unique opportunity.

"It is common for Cabinet Secretaries to step down from their positions at publicly traded companies," according to a UNITE HERE statement. "If Ms. Pritzker decides to step down from Hyatt's Board of Directors, this will create the first ever vacancy on Hyatt's Board."

In a statement to Thursday, Hyatt said Pritzker has had "a long and distinguished career in business and public service."

"If circumstances lead to Penny Pritzker resigning from the Hyatt board of directors, the Board members will take appropriate action at that time," the statement read.