Saturday, May 4, 2013

New Affront to Chicago Teachers, Other Workers: Obama Nominates Penny Pritzker Commerce Secretary

President Barack Obama has made a number of moves that have been affronts to teachers and to working people.

His nomination of Penny Pritzker is one of his most brazen affronts to these groups. Of course, one can easily see a pay-back in all this: Pritzker was a key fund-raiser for his 2008 presidential campaign and a behind the scenes funds donations bundler in the 2012 election campaign.

She has drawn controversy in Chicago as the highest-profile member of the Chicago Board of Education overseeing the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), playing most loyal advocate for mayor Rahm Emanuel's "reform" program of closing schools, opening charter schools and fighting against the Chicago Teachers Union. Additionally, she's drawn criticism for her general labor stand --so much so, that progressives launched a petition on the CREDO site gained over 3,200 signatures.

Even by February anticipation of an Obama nomination of Pritzker was giving labor activists the willies, as the Huffington Post reported Februrary 8, 2013. But Obama went ahead, anyway.

Here is the text of the CREDO ACTION petition to Obama against his Pritzker appointment:
Penny Pritzker is an anti-worker business mogul who should not be appointed to head the Commerce Department. Why is this important?

Recent reports indicate that President Barack Obama has chosen Penny Pritzker as a finalist for an appointment to head the Department of Commerce. She is a long-time friend of the President as well as a billionaire, anti-worker business mogul from Chicago. The President received tremendous support during his re-election campaign from unions and working families and it is unacceptable for him to name an anti-worker businesswoman for this position.

As a member of the Hyatt Hotel chain board Penny Pritzker has refused to intercede on behalf of struggling workers. Last summer Chicago workers who organized a rally had the hotel's heat lamps turned on during a mid-summer heatwave. Housekeepers have had their workloads nearly double without proper compensation. All the while Penny has remained silent.

She stood by as her family's hotel chain received a companywide letter from OSHA that warned them of hazards facing housekeepers on the job.

Ms. Pritzker serves on the Chicago Public School's Board of Education. In her role she attempted to bust the union with her fellow board members by closing public schools and opening charter schools, mostly operated by the well-connected, that do not recognize the local union. She has stated that students merely need enough skills in reading, mathematics, and science to be productive members of the workforce. Forget the arts, gym, music, etc.

Her time in public service epitomizes the 1% versus 99%. As one of the wealthiest people in the country she wants our children to become members of the workforce instead of creative, engaged, and well-rounded citizens of the country that she seeks to serve as Commerce Secretary.

Mr. President, we are worth more than a Penny.

Sign my petition urging President Obama to not appoint an anti worker businesswoman as the next Commerce Secretary of the United States.
Here's what some of the press has been saying about Obama's nomination of Pritzker:
The Chicago Tribune wrote a piece lauding Obama for the appointment. However it noted some trouble absent from many of the recent accounts on Pritzker's business history. In addition to the controversies regarding her management stance and her posture towards Chicago students and teachers, she has been involved in banks that got involved in sub-prime mortgages, a role for which she has received kid gloves treatment for her wrong-doing.
During the early 1990s, she chaired Superior Bank, a suburban Chicago lender her family co-owned that later collapsed amid accounting irregularities and subprime loans gone bad. Federal regulators seized it in 2001.

The Pritzkers and their co-owners settled with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for $460 million, without admitting liability. The FDIC also let the family share in part of a recovery the government obtained from the bank's auditor, Ernst & Young. Neither the federal insurance fund nor some depositors were ever made whole.

It was an unusual deal, and Pritzker no doubt will be asked about it.
Recent national press reports have only obliquely addressed Pritzker's contentious role as head of the Chicago Public Schools Board.

The union fought back against Pritzker and the Board's plans this winter with a satire scary bed-time story, “Stand Up to the Fat Cats,” and a coloring book, the Sun-Times reported December 12, 2012.

With good reason, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis welcomed her departure from the Board. See this interview, published March 14, 2013, by the Chicago Mag, "Karen Lewis Says Good Riddance to Penny Pritzker."

In recent weeks (in Pritzker's absence, as she has moved on from the Board) Chicago students have been staging mass walk-outs (April 24) against standardized tests and Friday, May 2 against teacher firings. Jacob Chamberlain at Common Dreams noted the various controversies she has stirred.
President Barack Obama nominated another corporate billionaire to his cabinet on Thursday, announcing hotel heiress Penny Pritzker—also longtime Obama supporter and "heavyweight" fundraiser— as his pick to be Secretary of Commerce.

U.S. President Barack Obama announces Penny Pritzker, right, as his nominee for Secretary of Commerce (Reuters) As the Chicago Tribune reports:
Pritzker's nomination could prove controversial. She is on the board of Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp., which was founded by her wealthy family and has had rocky relations with labor unions, and she could face questions about the failure of a bank partly owned by her family.

With a personal fortune estimated at $1.85 billion, Pritzker, 54, is listed by Forbes magazine among the 300 wealthiest Americans.
Ahead of her nomination, a petition organized by CREDO Action urged Obama not to nominate Pritzker, calling her "an anti-worker business mogul who should not be appointed to head the Commerce Department."

The Chicago Tribune adds:
Pritzker also could draw fire from labor leaders. Hyatt has long battled Unite Here in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere. And Pritzker, who served on the Chicago Board of Education until she resigned in March, has been harshly criticized by the Chicago Teachers Union. When she stepped down, a union official said she "has a long and storied history as an anti-labor and anti-worker kind of boss. [...] She could also face scrutiny over the collapse of Superior Bank, which was co-owned by her family. The bank, based in Hinsdale, Ill., was involved in subprime mortgage lending, and its failure in 2001 stirred charges of fraud and mismanagement.
The Tribune reports that Pritzker stepped down from the Chicago Board of Education in March just "days before Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he had targeted 53 elementary schools and a high school program to close, affecting an estimated 30,000 students."

Such a move allowed Pritzker to avoid "a politically unpopular vote" and "further protests" from angry community members and unionized teachers who loudly objected to the closing.

"We know Penny Pritzker has a long and storied history as an anti-labor and anti-worker kind of boss," Kristine Mayle, financial secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union, told the Tribune in March. "Her policies adversely affect working families. She has worked to close schools and destabilize neighborhoods, and we hope she does a better job in her new position, if she gets it."

And investigative reporter Dennis Bernstein says that Pritzker's nomination is additionally controversial becuase of her involvment in a sub-prime mortgage scandal and the collapse of Superior Bank in Chicago in 2001.

According to Bernstein:
Penny Pritzker played fast and loose with the American Dream. Her pioneering sub-prime operations, out of Superior Bank in Chicago, specifically targeted poor and working class people of color across the country. She ended up crashing Superior for a billion dollar cost to tax payers, and creating a personal tragedy for the 1,400 people who lost their savings when the bank failed. Pritzker, whose family controls Hyatt Regency Hotels, is in the top one percent of the one percent. Her extreme wealth and privilege has not only made her virtually untouchable by law enforcement, but will now allow her to cleanse her sordid sub-prime banking record by becoming the first woman Secretary of Commerce.
During the official nomination ceremony, Obama said of Pritzker, "She knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur."

But as blogger DS Wright suggests at FireDogLake, wouldn't a better Commerce Secretary be someone who was not "at odds with labor unions" or one without "problems complying with bank regulations".

Pritzker's nomination now awaits a confirmation process in the Senate.
Liberal and progressive Democratic senators now must show their integrity and oppose Pritzker's appointment.