The last year was filled with political humiliation for unions.
- The Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, North Carolina, a so-called right-to-work state.
- Charlotte’s business community includes the headquarters of Bank of America, but does not include a single unionized hotel for workers staying overnight.
- The Democratic platform removed all mentions of God and labor reform. Public pressure restored God. Labor reform remained absent.
Despite these snubs, unions continued to give heavily to Obama’s campaign, and they mobilized members and non-members alike, thanks in part to the new rules of Citizens United.
Now, their faithfulness in the face of these snubs has been rewarded with the nomination of the decidedly union-unfriendly Penny Pritzker for Secretary of Commerce. With this move, President Obama has once again shown unions that he takes their support for granted.
It is no surprise to see Pritzker’s name surface again. President Obama considered her for the same post in 2008. Talk of her nomination fizzled, presumably because the middle of a recession brought about by terrible banking practices was not the right time for a commerce secretary who oversaw a collapsed bank that dealt in subprime mortgage backed securities and was fined nearly a half-billion dollars by the federal government. With the banking crisis (more or less) in the past, Pritzker’s name surfaced again following Obama’s reelection.
Unions objected loudly in the hopes that the president would look elsewhere. However, in what has become a quadrennial tradition, a Democratic Party that relied on unions to win an election made a post-election pivot to corporations and the wealthy for advice on the treatment of workers. Not unsurprisingly, the business class is rather taken with the anti-worker Pritzker.
Some of Pritzker’s problems with unions stem from the treatment of workers at Hyatt Hotels, the hotel chain co-founded by her father where she sits on the board. According to the hospitality workers union, UNITE HERE, the hotels have a long record of labor abuses including wage theft, illegal and unjust firings, wage depression through the aggressive use of subcontractors, unreasonable workloads, and unsafe work conditions.
Pritzker’s issues with unions don’t stop there. As an education ally of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Pritzker has been a strong advocate of charter schools at the expense of existing public schools. She was a member of the Chicago Board of Education during the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike last year. In this role, she also helped oversee a massive school closure plan—one of the largest in American history—that would affect 47,000 students, 88 percent of them African American. When Pritzker stepped down from the Board in March, CTU President Karen Lewis released a statement saying that Pritzker
has a long and storied history as being an anti-labor, anti-worker kind of boss. She has supported policies that have had an adverse impact on working-class families and their children.
Much of the attention to Pritzker’s nomination has focused on her role as a long-time Obama supporter and bundler. According to the OpenSecrets, Pritzker raised more than $1 million in 2012, and approximately $250,000 in 2008. Estimates of “bundling” are imprecise, and OpenSecrets acknowledges that there is a reasonable chance that Pritzker raised more than the amount listed.
However, missing from the conversation is how much unions raised for Obama and other Democrats. According to OpenSecrets, the top five union contributors gave more than $55 million in the 2012 election, most of it to Democratic candidates. These figures do not count union super PACs such as Workers Voice, which spent over $20 million in 2012.
In addition to donations to Democratic candidates, unions spent enormous efforts mobilizing voters for Democrats. According to Dave Jamieson at the Huffington Post, union organizing helped raise Obama’s numbers nationally and in battleground states. Unions targeted white working class voters in swing states, and claimed to have provided a 10 percent bump.
Yet union contributions weren’t enough to get a seat at the table: Obama did not respond to union concerns about Pritzker’s past policies towards workers.
Unions and worker advocacy groups are rightfully concerned about Pritzker’s past indifference to mass firings and labor abuses. Their continued organization and support for President Obama gives them a right to expect that their voices will be heard in his cabinet appointments—particularly for appointments that directly impact union interests.
Instead, Obama ignored these concerns, hailing Pritzker’s commitment to three policies he outlined in the State of the Union:
Number one, making sure America is a magnet for good jobs. Number two, helping workers earn the skills they need to get those jobs. And number three, making sure their hard work actually leads to a decent living.
President Obama may be convinced that Pritzker is committed to that last one. But evidence for that belief seems strangely lacking.