Unions oppose Secretary of Commerce nominee

In a statement of opposition addressed to the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation and Science,  UNITE HERE laid out its case for opposing the nomination  Hyatt Hotel heiress Penny Pritzker as the next Secretary of Commerce.

“Since 2004, Ms. Pritzker has served on the board of directors at Hyatt, a company that her family founded and controls,” reads UNITE HERE’s statement. “Under her leadership, Hyatt has exhibited a broad pattern of labor abuses, including aggressive outsourcing, low wages, and mistreatment of housekeepers. Together, these practices single Hyatt out as the worst hotel employer in the US.”

Earlier this month, the Chicago Teachers Union voiced its opposition to the nomination of Pritzker, who until March served on Chicago Public School Board of Education.

“Penny Pritzker has a long and storied history as being an anti-labor, anti-worker kind of boss,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union after Pritzker’s nomination was announced. “She has supported policies that have had an adverse  impact on working-class families and their children. As a member of the Board of Education, she has worked to close schools, destabilize neighborhoods, and disrupt the economic lives of thousands of public school employees.”

Since Pritzker joined the hotel’s board, Hyatt, which this year announced that it would buy back $200 million worth of shares from investors, has aggressively sought to lower labor costs.

In Chicago, UNITE HERE and Hyatt after four years have been unable to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement because Hyatt has balked at implementing new safety measures and limiting it outsourcing. As a result, the wages of Hyatt workers in Chicago have been frozen.

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

Throughout the US, Hyatt has sought to lower labor costs by replacing full-time housekeepers with temporary staff.

In Boston, Hyatt fired its entire housekeeping staff at its three hotels without giving them notice. The hotel giant then replaced these career housekeepers with temporary workers hired through an outsourcing company. The temps were paid the minimum wage.

“In cities like Indianapolis and Baltimore, over 70 percent of the hotel’s housekeepers are outsourced earning minimum wages with no benefits,” reads UNITE HERE’s statement of opposition to Pritzker’s nomination. “Subcontracted Hyatt housekeepers clean as many as 30 rooms a day, getting paid as little as $2 per room.”

Housekeeping at hotels like Hyatt is hard work that exposes staff to a number of safety risks. Heavy mattresses must be lifted, carts containing clean linen and cleaning tools are heavy, and workers’ arms are constantly being extended and contorted during cleaning procedures.

These unsafe conditions, according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, can cause severe and painful injuries. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Hyatt housekeepers have the highest rate of injury among all of the hotel chains examined in the study.

Unsafe work and low wages have led some Hyatt non-union workers to try to organize a union. In San Antonio, Hyatt has fired some workers active in the union organizing campaign.

Citing these abuses, D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, said that the Pritzker nomination was a bad idea. “In order to get our nation on the road to recovery, the Commerce Department needs leadership far different from what Ms. Pritzker has demonstrated at Hyatt Hotels,” said Taylor.

Before UNITE HERE announced its opposition to Pritzker, the Chicago Teachers Union took issue with the nomination.

“We cannot imagine that someone who has a long history of  bludgeoning Chicago’s working families and destroying public schools would be  given a platform to continue these sorts of business practices on a national  level,” said Lewis after Pritzker’s nomination was announced.

Pritzker has long been an advocate of replacing public schools with privately operated charter schools. Before being appointed to the Chicago’s Board of Education by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Pritzker’s foundation, the Pritzker-Traubert Foundation, was a major source of funding for Chicago area charter schools.

She donated money to Stand for the Children, a lobbying group that supports closing public schools and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.

Pritzker also served as the chair of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which according to the White House biography of Pritzker is a “venture philanthropy.” One of the things that this venture philanthropy does is to raise private equity for investments in charter schools.

“(Pritzker) has been the subject of countless protests because of her business practices and for her support of policies that are harmful to students in Chicago Public Schools,” said Lewis. “The Chicago Teachers Union has certainly been quite vocal and visible in those demonstrations.”

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