THE BLOG
06/04/2013 10:54 am ET | Updated Aug 03, 2013

Why UNITE HERE Is Opposing Penny Pritzker's Nomination for the Secretary of Commerce

On May 2, President Barack Obama nominated Penny Pritzker for Commerce Secretary, who faced her first (and likely only) Senate confirmation hearing on May 23. Dozens of Hyatt workers nationwide were present at the hearing to stand in opposition to the nomination of Ms. Pritzker, who is an heir to the multi-billion dollar Hyatt fortune and has served as a Director of Hyatt Hotels since 2004.

The Pritzker family built its financial empire with Hyatt, which has become one of the most recognizable hotel brands worldwide. Increasingly however, the Hyatt brand has become synonymous with labor abuses and housekeeper injuries, as Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst hotel employer in the United States. Our President has said many of the right things about improving the lives of working Americans, but his nominee stands in stark contrast to his positions.

On August 31, 2009--amid the depths of the recession--Hyatt fired its entire housekeeping staff at three non-union Boston area hotels. After decades of service and backbreaking work, these women were handed trash bags and asked to clear out their lockers. Worse still, some of the fired housekeepers reported having to train subcontracted workers that Hyatt hired to replace them.

The Boston firings sparked international outrage and threw into sharp relief a broader pattern of labor abuses at Hyatt: aggressive outsourcing, low wages and the mistreatment of housekeepers. These practices counter President Obama's stated commitment to good jobs and greater prosperity for working Americans.

President Obama has said the right things about improving worker wages. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama committed to fight poverty by raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Hyatt housekeepers get paid as little as $2 to clean a room. Subcontracted Hyatt workers get paid the least, often earning minimum wage with no benefits. In cities like Indianapolis and Baltimore, over 70% of the cleaning staff are outsourced. Moreover, Hyatt has led opposition to local initiatives to raise the minimum wage or curb abuses by subcontractors.

President Obama has said the right things about worker safety. He has called for better enforcement tools to stop employers who choose speed and profit over employee health and welfare.

But Hyatt remains a dangerous place to work, particularly for women who make beds and scrub toilets as hotel housekeepers. At Hyatt, housekeepers clean as many as 30 rooms a day, requiring rushing that can lead to debilitating injuries. In a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine examining a total of 50 hotel properties from 5 different hotel companies, Hyatt housekeepers had the highest injury rate of all housekeepers studied when compared by hotel company.

In May 2012--in a first for the hotel industry--federal OSHA issued a companywide letter to Hyatt identifying ergonomic risks that its housekeepers face on the job.

Some Hyatt housekeepers still clean on their hands and knees. Hyatt led the industry opposition to legislation in California that would end this archaic practice by requiring hotels to provide cleaning staff with simple tools like long-handled mops. Can you imagine if male janitors were denied a mop?

Hyatt's actions have led Hyatt workers to call for a global boycott of their company. They have drawn support from organizations representing millions of workers including the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. Hotel workers have risked their livelihoods standing up to a global employer that mistreats them.

Ms. Pritzker may argue that she cannot be held responsible for the actions of Hyatt Hotels. But Ms. Pritzker has continued to serve on Hyatt's board, draw director compensation and purchase Hyatt shares. Although she has indicated she will divest her interest in over 220 holdings if confirmed as Secretary of Commerce, she will continue to hold 10 million shares of Hyatt stock.

The long-term viability of the American economy depends on the creation of more good jobs. It depends on visionary leadership and a commitment to lifting more Americans out of poverty. This is the vision that our President has promised us. But Hyatt hotels has taken the opposite path. Through outsourcing and subcontracting it has made what were once decent jobs into dead end jobs. When workers at Hyatt have stood up to improve their conditions, too often they have been fired shortly afterwards. As Commerce Secretary, our nation needs a leadership far different from that demonstrated by Ms. Pritzker at Hyatt Hotels. We must oppose the President's nominee.