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