Sisterhood Blog

The Woman Who Can Help Hyatt's Housekeepers

By Sarah Seltzer

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Ever since the Dominique Strauss-Khan scandal, the treatment of hotel workers and their very physical vulnerability has been eating away at my conscience. I savor an occasional hotel or B&B stay — there’s nothing like physical separation from the stack of bills, the computer, the “to-do” lists. But pleasures aren’t as pleasurable when you realize they’re literally treading on the backs of others.

That concern — and, let’s face it, my lifelong bleeding-heart pro-union sympathies — explains why I’ve been following the nation’s biggest pro-labor action this week, the boycott Hyatt campaign, “Hyatt Hurts”. This is a campaign pushing hard against the international hotel chain on behalf of what workers say are consistent abuses by management.

Last week, I wrote about the contrast between the conditions faced by the hotel workers, who can’t take at-home maternity leave (or any paid maternity leave at all), and high-profile CEOs like Marissa Mayer. Now I’m looking more closely at the contrast between the workers and Penny Pritzker, whose family owns the hotel chain and who has been targeted by the union because she is a major Obama donor.

Issues of pay and replacing workers with subcontractors working long hours at minimum wage are foremost in the campaign, but what really struck me in both the name of the campaign and the manifesto laid out by the movement are the descriptions of really degrading conditions, some of which have been cited against the hotel by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA ) or its equivalents at the state level:

Hotel housekeepers frequently clean bathroom floors on their hands and knees, a degrading practice that is tolerated by too many hotel employers. This practice, combined with the failure to provide fitted sheets like those used in homes, has led to an unacceptable rate of back and other work-related injuries. In 2011, Hyatt took the lead in opposing a bill to end “on our knees” bathroom cleaning and backbreaking bed-making practices.

I don’t see how even the most conservative economist can do anything but grimace at this. There was also an incident of sexual harassment that outraged progressives at the time:

In late September, the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, California, fired two housekeepers, sisters Martha and Lorena Reyes. These middle aged mothers were featured on a digitally-created collage of bikini-clad “Hyatt Housekeepers” on a bulletin board at work. Humiliated by their depiction, Marta removed her image and that of her sister. Soon after, both sisters were fired. The sisters have filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In subsequent sexual harassment trainings, management denied that it had objectified women’s bodies or engaged in any damaging act.

In all their protests, UNITE-HERE!, the union that represents the Hyatt workers, has been targeting Pritzker, from Hyatt’s (Jewish) family of owners, who was a big Obama bundler in 2008 and will be under serious pressure to bring in more cash in the post Citizen-United, Super PAC era.

Lately, she’s getting pilloried by both sides, The New York Times reports::

For Ms. Pritzker, her high-profile backing of Mr. Obama came at an unexpectedly bitter cost. Their relationship made her a punching bag for the labor movement, which targeted her for what union officials call exploitative practices toward housekeepers by the Hyatt hotels.

She had drawn business and Jewish leaders to support Mr. Obama, but when many of them turned hostile toward the president because of his policies, some directed their ire toward her, even though she had her own criticisms, too.

I always have a hard time when Jewish magnates are accused of exploiting low-paid or immigrant workers, because of our own collective history of being low-paid immigrant workers in this country. But of course, with no group has past mistreatment ever guaranteed future empathy. And ultimately, in my mind, this doesn’t boil down to culture or even cultural morality — it’s about the power and pull of wealth.

The need for donations has put Pritzker in the spotlight for the Obama campaign — and the refusal of the Hyatt company to concede to workers’ demands is about the drive for profit. And ultimately, wealth will influence the administration’s policy on labor issues. As Erik Loomis writes:

Pritzker was actually Obama’s original choice for Secretary of Commerce before her involvement in subprime mortgages took her out of the running. Penny Pritzker is worth approximately $1.7 billion. Who do you think has more influence with a Democratic president, Pritzker or UNITE-HERE?

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