National Actions Against Billionaire Pritzkers and the
Hyatt Hotel Chain
By Carl Finamore t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed July 19, 2010
On June 9, blue-chip Hyatt stockholders anxiously
anticipating dividend announcements that would,
perhaps, justify a nice evening on the town - maybe in
one of the city's acclaimed five-star restaurants -
assembled inside the plush Hyatt Regency McCormick
Place in Chicago. Protesting outside, were hotel
workers who had their own concerns about how to put
food on the table. Hyatt employees average less than
$30,000 a year in most of the country.
Stockholders, on the other hand, had good reason to
expect a nice, big slice of the pie. Hyatt shares have
ballooned 50 percent since the formerly privately owned
company went public in late 2009. In that deal,
Pritzker family owners alone netted close to $1
billion. The cash register has been ringing ever since.
The hotel union, UNITE-HERE, reports, "as recently as
March 2010, Hyatt had $1.3 billion cash on hand - on
average, nearly five times as much as any other hotel
company." National hotel industry profits overall are
also rebounding upwards.
The union's Local 2 in San Francisco, for example,
reports revenue growth for city hotels "projected to be
4 percent for the remainder of 2010, 12 percent in 2011
and 14 percent in 2012." "We haven't seen these
dramatic double-digit numbers since the 1970s,"
emphasized Local 2 press coordinator Riddhi Mehta.
Everyone seems to be cashing in - except employees. As
a result, 400 UNITE-HERE Local 2 members in San
Francisco walked off the job at the Hyatt Regency on
June 8 for a three-date strike, launching an employee-
endorsed boycott of the hotel.
On the picket line, union representative Tina Chen
summed up the feelings of the workers "who know well
that the company is making loads of money. A one-year
contract we offered them last year would have kept our
current health insurance, maintained our pensions and
provided a modest wage increase, while still only
increasing labor costs by 1.5 percent. Why do they try
to squeeze us?"
This is the question that just won't go away. Support
for hotel workers is growing nationally as contracts
expire in major cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Los
Angeles, Vancouver and Honolulu where coordinated
actions against the Hyatt were to take place the week
of June 9.
Among the protesters in Chicago were 100 religious
leaders who were stopped at metal detectors as they
attempted to peacefully enter the stockholders'
meeting. As they vowed not to leave before speaking
with a Hyatt representative, Hyatt Human Resources
chief Robb Webb finally did show up.
"I applaud your interest and I applaud the concern,"
Webb piously began. When questioned about the abrupt
firing of 100 housekeepers in Boston (who were replaced
with cheaper, outsourced labor), he reassured the
clergy that it was "not consistent with the values of
the company. We're not proud about how that was
handled." However, he also reported that the difficult
"business decision" was final and the workers would not
be rehired. (All Webb quotes by Chicago Breaking
Business reporter Julie Wernau.)
Trifecta of Power, Money and Greed
The Hyatt Hotel Corporation boasts a portfolio of 434
properties in 45 countries. It is a formidable entity
as is its major shareholder, the billionaire Pritzker
family of Chicago. The Pritzkers are not only extremely
wealthy - having been listed on Forbes' "America's
Richest Families" since it originated in 1982 - but
they are also quite good at buying influence.
Penny Pritzker conveniently became national finance
chair of the Obama presidential campaign shortly after
family business interests suffered a major public
embarrassment. Superior Bank, a lender chaired by
Pritzker, collapsed in 2001, causing millions in losses
to the government and depositors.
For years, Superior reported profits and paid its
owners dividends of nearly $200 million "without regard
to the deteriorating" condition of the bank, according
to a 2002 report by the Federal Deposit Insurance
Cozying up to Obama was one of a series of calculated
moves to repair the family's damaged personal
reputation and to cultivate a "Mad Men," carefully
crafted image of social concern. For example, the
Pritzker Foundation recently made a $10 million, tax-
deductible donation to Stanford University "to create a
scholarship fund dedicated to supporting Chicago
students with the greatest financial need."
There is evidence that this apparent generosity is
self-serving pretense - or public relations
"investment." Simultaneously, the Pritzkers continually
cut staff and increase workloads at their hotels. As a
result, the Hyatt had the highest reported rate of
injury in 2009 for housekeepers in an academic study of
50 major hotels as reported by the progressive blog
Despite this long record of financial malfeasance and
labor hostility, President Obama continues to cast
Pritzker in the unlikely role as advocate for American
working families as well as financial adviser to the
Obama presidential campaign. Predictably, "penny-
pinching" Pritzker joined with other billionaires on
the Economic Recovery Advisory Board to oppose the
Employee Free Choice Act - legislation which would
allow millions of workers to select a union free from
well-documented patterns of employer harassment.
No Easy Settlement Expected
The Pritzkers value their treasured personal bank
accounts, but also power. They seek the power to limit
employee expectations now and into the future, a power
that assures owners a growing share of corporate
revenues at the expense of workers, over the long term.
On the other hand, a fair agreement at the Hyatt would
allow Local 2 to keep the best contract in the industry
intact while setting standards for other hotels with
expired contracts as well.
"Power never takes a back step - only in the face of
more power," argued Malcolm X. This is one such
contest, between two very determined forces, one with
the solid support of the workers and a growing list of
community allies, the other with the entrenched
influence of wealth.
Facing down the Pritzkers, hotel workers in five cities
made a show of force last week against the third-
largest hotel chain in the country. These actions mark
an important, strategic escalation.
Clearly, this will not be the last strike, protest and
boycott if hotels continue stalling negotiations. More
nationally coordinated actions will certainly develop
as contracts for around 50,000 hotel workers expire
soon in major cities across the country.
The towering San Francisco Hyatt Regency sits on the
edge of the famed bay waterfront where police and long
shore strikers battled during the 1934 victorious
general strike. Today, there is a plaque nearby
honoring martyred picketers Nicolas Bordoise and Howard
Sperry, who were felled.
Working-class cafes and lunch spots have long ago been
replaced by elite shops and fancy bistros shaded by
magnificent, imported, palm trees lining the entire
length of the city's grand waterfront traffic lanes
overlooking the bay.
While times and San Francisco's character change, the
hotel workers' actions today hearken back to the very
best traditions of this historic district and herald
dramatic showdowns that lie ahead in this great city
and across the country.
Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: portside.org/submit
Frequently asked questions: portside.org/faq
Account assistance: portside.org/contact
Search the archives: portside.org/archive