The commerce and labor departments were founded as a single unit under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. The two departments split in 1913 and today are viewed as representing opposing forces—the former dedicated to expanding business competitiveness and innovation, and the latter to protecting workers and regulating workplace conditions. This dichotomy couldn’t be illustrated better than by President Obama’s nominees to lead each department. Earlier this month, Obama nominated his longtime friend and billionaire Penny Pritzker to lead the Commerce Department. And in March, he nominated Thomas Perez to lead the Department of Labor. Labor groups, though generally satisfied that Perez will follow in many of former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’ pro-worker policies, feel slighted that Obama has tapped Pritzker to head a federal agency.
Pritzker, a consistent supporter of reproductive rights organizations, is also a director and part-owner of Hyatt Hotels, which is embroiled in a high-profile battle with the union Unite Here and has received Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warnings for injuries women Hyatt workers have faced.
Therein lies the workers’ overarching concern: Will the Democratic Party, which is reliant on unions and women voters to get politicians elected, move further toward advocating corporate practices that are harmful to low-wage and women workers? This is a big question that will be answered in the coming years.
Pritzker has barely spoken to the press, so other than than her history of philanthropic giving as well as her business background, the public has little insight into her broader priorities. As Steven Rosenfeld noted last month at AlterNet, “The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest largest labor federation, joined in the call for a global boycott of Hyatt properties last July. The NFL Players Association and the National Organization of Women have also joined.”
As such, the coalition of labor and women’s groups that worked so hard to elect Obama during both his campaigns may be disappointed in his choice of nominee.
RH Reality Check spoke with two Hyatt workers and labor union members who are Obama supporters and who are frustrated about Pritzker’s nomination.
“I respect Obama. I myself campaigned for him, but he chose to pick Pritzker,” said Cathy Youngblood, a Hyatt housekeeper based in Los Angeles and one of the most vocal spokespeople for Unite Here. “If you can’t run a hotel fairly, how can you be trusted to run the Commerce Department?”
Hyatt has received ergonomic risk warnings from OSHA for the working conditions housekeepers—a job dominated by women—have faced over the years. Youngblood is well known for fighting to join Hyatt Hotel’s board of directors to help influence the company’s policies with regard to its workers.
“I wouldn’t begin to question why Obama nominated her. I respect him,” she said. “I just have to say I think he made the wrong choice.” Youngblood and other Hyatt hotel workers attended Pritzker’s Senate hearing to express their opposition to her nomination.
Cristian Toro is a Hyatt banquet waiter based in Chicago, where he has worked for nine years. “Personally, I am disappointed in our president. He is friendly to progressive causes but he shouldn’t have nominated Pritzker,” Toro said.
Toro said he took issue with Pritzker’s plans to “lay off his colleagues left and right,” an apparent reference to Hyatt’s use of subcontractors, which many believe may undercut Pritzker’s commitment to creating jobs—a focus in her position on Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. According to Unite Here, only nine of the 30 to 40 housekeepers working at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore are full-time and directly employed by Hyatt; the rest are subcontracted temporary workers, many of whom earn minimum wage. “For me, this is not just about wages, it’s about on-the-job injuries our housekeepers are facing, creating jobs, other workplace issues,” Toro added.
Though symbolically troubling to labor groups, given her role at Hyatt (as well as her much written about family finances), it is unclear that serving as Commerce Secretary would really give Pritzker any significant authority. Recent history suggests the Commerce Department is far from a formidable federal agency. With a relatively small $8.8 billion budget, compared to the Department of Labor’s roughly $13 billion budget, many have actually called to eliminate the Commerce Department entirely. Both Democrats and Republicans have explored getting rid of the department since the 1970s, arguing that the department has “outlasted its usefulness” and has “never been much of a heavyweight in terms of national policy.”
Even President Obama proposed eliminating the department, or at least streamlining it to include just the Small Business Administration and a few other departments, a move that was endorsed by the last Commerce Secretary, John Bryson. (Bryson was criticized by Republicans and some business groups because he helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council.)
If she’s confirmed, it’s possible Pritzker could try to reverse this course, or use her role to advocate for more pro-business practices. She is believed to be a solidly pro-business Democrat who could improve Obama’s relationship with business while also advocating for some liberal causes like reproductive rights. The longer-term implications of her appointment, and her role in shaping corporate practices that impact many women workers, remains to be seen.