Penny Pritzker For Commerce Secretary? Rumors Give Unions Heartburn

Penny Pritzker, chairman and founder of Pritzker Realty Group, left, talks with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, before Presi
Penny Pritzker, chairman and founder of Pritzker Realty Group, left, talks with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, before President Barack Obama hosted a meeting with the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

WASHINGTON -- In recent days, multiple news outlets -- from the Washington Post to the Chicago Sun-Times to Bloomberg -- have reported that Chicago businesswoman and Obama fundraiser Penny Pritzker is a top candidate to become the president's next secretary of commerce.

Although it remains little more than chatter at this point, the prospect of a Pritzker Department of Commerce has already caught the attention of a core progressive constituency that's backed the president: unions and labor activists.

"We're of the mind that working people aren't going to be happy about it," said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator at the Chicago Teachers Union. "The union leaders we've talked to are pretty aghast at the prospect."

In addition to heading the Pritzker Realty Group, Pritzker is a board member of Hyatt Hotels and the daughter of Donald Pritzker, co-founder of the international hotel chain. Hyatt and the hospitality workers union Unite Here have been locked in a long and at times ugly contract battle, with the union accusing the company of implementing "crushing workloads" at its hotels and literally hurting its housekeepers. The company, in turn, has defended its treatment of workers and accused the union of carrying out a smear campaign.

The AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the country, joined the union's call for a global boycott of Hyatt properties last year. The boycott is still in effect, having gained some high-profile adherents such as the NFL Players Association and the National Organization of Women. The union says 5,000 individuals and groups have signed on.

A member of the Chicago Board of Education, Pritzker has also become a target of the city's public school teachers. The teachers' union has strongly criticized the use of $5 million in tax increment financing to help fund construction of a Hyatt hotel in Hyde Park, with teachers and activists last year singling out Pritzker in their protests.

Spokespersons for Unite Here and the AFL-CIO said they would not comment at the moment, likely because the reports of a Pritzker nomination remain little more than rumors. But on Thursday labor activists had already launched an online petition on the progressive Credo Action site urging the White House to scratch Pritzker from its short list (if, that is, Pritzker is actually on it).

A Pritzker spokesperson did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

As a fundraiser, Pritzker played a leading role in Obama's political rise in Washington. In a piece on her less-visible efforts in last year's campaign relative to 2008, The New York Times called Pritzker the president's "most important donor, the true believer whose support had helped power him to the United States Senate and the White House." Pritzker helped bundle at least half a million dollars for the president's reelection campaign.

When he first won the White House, Obama considered Pritzker for the Commerce Secretary slot -- something she herself coveted, according to The Times. There were two leading theories as to why she ultimately wasn't the pick: Either Pritzker voluntarily removed herself from the list, or the president took a pass "because her fortune risked making her radioactive" in a confirmation fight, The Times reported.

The White House isn't commenting on rumors surrounding Cabinet picks.