Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker talks to reporters in Washington on Oct. 4, 2010. | Charles Dharapak~AP file photo
Updated: June 16, 2013 6:35AM
WASHINGTON — Penny Pritzker, President Barack Obama’s Commerce secretary nominee, has long been a target of organized labor — with the drive against her led by the Chicago Teachers Union and Unite Here Local 1, representing the city’s hotel workers.
Yet as Pritzker is lining up Senate support for her confirmation — making her first courtesy calls on Tuesday, starting with a meeting in the Capitol with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — no union, either national or local, has raised any objection to her nomination.
“I look forward to helping her through the confirmation process and to working with her once she’s sworn in as the next secretary of commerce,” Durbin said in a statement after the meeting.
The unions have muzzled themselves, not because they are crazy about the Pritzker nomination. They are not. Labor officials I talked to told me they are taking a pass on Pritzker because unions have a lot more pressing battles than taking on Pritzker.
Unions are worried because Republicans are blocking Obama’s nominee for Labor secretary, Thomas Perez, and nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, including Chicago attorney Phillip Miscimarra, a partner at Morgan Lewis.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is holding a hearing Thursday on the NLRB nominees, and the nominees are “likely in for a contentious fight,” the Communications Workers of America said in a briefing memo.
For the unions, fighting Pritzker is a lost cause, so best to move on to other battles and leave her alone —and keep out of trouble with the White House. Union leaders are pragmatic and know they do not have the muscle among labor-friendly Democratic senators to have any significant impact anyway. And an anti-union rap would not be a problem for Pritzker with Republican senators.
If the unions had influence, it would have been at the front end — before Obama tapped Pritzker last week. The unions live in the real world and know that Obama is personally close to Pritzker and may not have won the White House in 2008 without her work as his National Finance Chair and wanted her in the Commerce spot.
In Chicago, Pritzker drew the wrath of the CTU when she was on the Chicago Board of Education; when she stepped down in March, CTU President Karen Lewis said so long in statement that called her an “anti-labor, anti-worker kind of boss.”
The Pritzker family controls Hyatt Hotels, and Penny Pritzker is on the board of the hotel chain. She will have to step down in order to join the cabinet as part of her ethics scrub.
The hotel workers union and Hyatt have been at odds for years. Unite Here Local 1 President Henry Tamarin has led the charge against the Pritzker family, teaming up at times with the teachers union to attack the family.
In March 2012, Tamarin slammed Pritzker family members for appealing their property taxes, telling WBBM radio, “We think the family that owns the Hyatt hotels has gone off the reservation of what’s fair and just,” Tamarin said.
However, after Pritzker was nominated, Unite crafted a statement that went out of its way not to lay a glove on Pritzker, noting only that that the role of commerce secretary “requires a serious focus on the challenge of helping workers achieve full-time jobs with decent wages and safe working conditions.”
With Pritzker’s presumed departure from the Hyatt Board, Unite devoted most of the statement to its drive to get a hotel worker on the board to take her place.
Tamarin declined an interview through a Unite spokesman, who told me it was premature to comment before Pritzker’s confirmation hearing. His son, Nate Tamarin, works in the White House. He is special assistant to the president for public engagement — who has been a White House liaison to organized labor.