Obama's Commerce nominee assailed as "anti-worker business mogul"

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In nominating Penny Pritzker as the new Commerce secretary, May 2, President Obama lavished praise on her.

Pritzker, a wealthy Chicago businesswoman, was national finance chair of the Obama campaign in 2008 and a national co-chair of the 2012 campaign.

"Penny is one of our country's most distinguished business leaders," said Obama, with Pritzker alongside him in the White House Rose Garden. "She knows that what we can do is to give every business and every worker the best possible chance to succeed by making America a magnet for good jobs."

But you won't hear praise like that for Pritzker from a Hyatt Hotel worker or Chicago Public Schools teacher.  Or from the progressive website CREDO Action, which describes Pritzker as an "anti-worker business mogul."

And for good reason.

Forbes Magazine lists Pritzker as the 263rd richest person in the U.S., with a net worth of $1.85 billion. The Pritzker family boasts assets of over $20 billion amassed mainly from ownership of the Hyatt Hotel chain.

Hyatt workers have been fighting the hotel for several years to win a fair contract over pay, benefits and working conditions. In response, Hyatt has stalled negotiations and tried to break the union by firing career workers and replacing them with non-union temporary minimum wage workers. This happened in Boston and Baltimore.

Hyatt workers are being forced to accept dangerous workloads and speedup, resulting in the highest injury rate for major hotel chains, according to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Hyatt Hurts website says, "OSHA recently issued a companywide letter to Hyatt warning it of the hazards its housekeepers face on the job. This is a first for the hotel industry."

This has earned Hyatt the reputation as the "worst hotel employer in the country." In response, Hyatt workers along with their union, Unite Here, initiated a global boycott of the hotel chain, supported by over 5,000 individuals and organizations including the AFL-CIO, National Organization for Women, the NFL Players Association, National Council of La Raza, and others.

Pritzker earned the ire of CPS teachers and parents for her role on the unelected Board of Education, dominated by billionaires and corporate executives. She was named to the board by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former top White House adviser to Obama. The BOE has rubber-stamped Mayor Emanuel's pro-privatization and anti-union agenda that resulted in the seven-day teacher strike last September and widespread opposition to the announced closure of 54 schools.

Pritzker is one of the city's corporate elite who is looting the public school system she claims to be representing. Last year Hyatt received $5.2 million in city Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to build a new hotel in the Hyde Park neighborhood.  Tax Increment Financing is a fancy way to describe a legal scheme that each year diverts $500 million in property tax revenues geared for schools and parks into the pockets of the wealthy for their own enrichment.

As a result of Hyatt's corporate looting, $3.3 million was cut from seven schools in the Hyde Park area and 27 teachers were fired.

Pritzker is a major contributor to Stand for Children, an influential pro-charter-school and anti-union group. One of her relatives chairs the governing board of the charter school at the University of Chicago.

Following Pritzker's resignation from the Board of Education in March to be appointed Commerce secretary, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said, "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."

The teachers union accused her of working to "close schools, destabilize neighborhoods and disrupt the economic lives of thousands of public school employees."

Pritzker also has ties to the subprime mortgage scandal, having been on the board of Superior Bank, which issued subprime loans that sparked the financial crisis and later went belly up. According to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2008, Pritzker maintained a "leadership role" after stepping down as chairwoman in 1994. At least 1,400 customers were still owed money after the bank's failure.

Photo: PW/John Bachtell

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  • Thank you, John, for writing this piece. As the other poster wrote, what in the world was Obama thinking when he made this nomination?

    I think I know. Just another example of the rich controlling the government. Progressives, and I mean true progressives, must rally against this nomination. Everything she stands for and represents goes against the principles of the party.

    Throw her out!!!

    Posted by detectivetom, 05/16/2013 4:04pm (2 years ago)

  • I was going to mention that the group, Stand For Children, which John points out that Pritzker supports, and funds, played a major role in the recent elections in Ohio.

    A slate of progressive teachers, most long-time union activists, ran for state rep positions last year, and ran tremendous, wonderful, grass-roots campaigns against intrenched corporate backed Republicans. Two of the leaders, Maureen Reedy & Marylin O'Connor, ran great campaigns, backed by labor & local activists. They worked hard, had great local support, but had little money. Both were up in the polls, looking at likely upset wins.

    However, late in the campaign, Stand For Children poured massive funds into their opponents campaigns and funded the most disgusting attack ads. They found ancient films of the candidates, a few seconds of yelling, then came the most vicious, outrageous attacks on their character. In spite of our best efforts, both few just short!

    We are now "represented" in those areas by hypocrite corporate mouthpieces that never have done anything for our public schools & our children except villify their teachers & cut their funds! Thanks, SFC, (& don't tell us you didn't know---Pritzker)!

    'Stand For Children' only stands up for corporations!

    Posted by bruce bostick, 05/12/2013 1:54am (2 years ago)

  • Thanks, John! Good piece!

    This piece, from one in the city that knows Pritzker best, is a tremendous example of way we must help our nation's org'd labor movement build an independent, nuanced policy that works to mobilize the entire people's movement to fight for policies that really represent our people. Without that, Obama is left with the pressure all coming from the corporations, the right, and as a politician of that class, he'll cave in that direction.

    However, he's shown again and again that, if we do mobilize and push, he'll come down on the people's side. He certainly blew this one!

    Let's build the fighting people's movement! They're the makers of history & they'll push things in the best direction.

    Posted by , 05/12/2013 12:59am (2 years ago)

  • What is going on President Obama? Looks like he is going to name a former lobbyist Tom Wheeler for big cable and wireless companies as head of the F.C.C.

    Posted by Harvey Smith, 05/04/2013 5:07pm (2 years ago)

  • Hyatt fired over thirty workers after it had them train their lower paid replacements. Hyatt is being boycotted by many Jewish organizations because of their inhumane treatment of their employees. It is amazing that Obama has nominated her.

    Posted by Elliot, 05/03/2013 5:07pm (2 years ago)

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