President Obama’s nomination of Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker to be Commerce secretary gives me the perfect excuse to write about a fascinating conversation I had recently with Cathy Youngblood, a union activist and Hyatt employee who is on a campaign to get her employer to put one worker on its board of directors. She’s written a compelling blog post over at Huffpost today about the conditions of her job and her attempts to get Hyatt to listen to her proposal and I urge you to read it, particularly this part:
My problem is one that workers everywhere face daily. I know you’ve probably had the thought, “What was my boss thinking when he set up the work this way? I could do this better!” We have common sense solutions and ideas to help our respective businesses run better. But something is amiss. My voice needs to be heard in the boardroom, as well as in the hotel room. Unfortunately, the business owners, those captains of finance, are the last to listen. Our physical strength is required, our wisdom… not so much. But thousands of people like me want something in return for our services. We want their respect, to share in the decision making process of how we do our work. We know what is needed to run a hotel: proper tools and equipment, as well as procedures to ensure safer working environments.
What if a worker, someone like me, were allowed to sit on the board of directors of these companies? Think about it. If you were running a business wouldn’t you want to hear from the people who know your business best? Knowledge is power, but only if one knows how to use it properly. This is why we launched the Someone Like Me campaign. There are currently 12 members on Hyatt Hotels’ Board of Directors, from companies like Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and plenty of private equity. But not one member of the Board works in a hotel. I am calling on Hyatt to add a 13th member to the Board of Directors, and reserve that seat for a hotel worker. If I were on Hyatt’s Board of Directors, I would ensure that all workers at Hyatt are paid a living wage, have safe working conditions, and the ability to speak out about those conditions without fear.
But this campaign isn’t just about Hyatt Hotels, or Walmart, or the big banks, it’s about all companies. The idea that a rank-and-file worker should have a seat on a corporate board may be a novel idea in the United States, but it is very common in the European Union. In some of the world’s best known companies such as BMW, workers have a seat at the table.
When Youngblood first told me about this idea, it was like a bolt of lightning to me. I’m far from a labor expert and it sounded to me like something that should be obvious — in fact, it should be a requirement. I had no idea that this was commonplace in large European companies. And somehow they’ve managed to survive while mingling with the riff-raff.
She is going to try to get into the next Hyatt shareholder meeting in June. The last time she tried, they barred her from the room (and she’s a shareholder!) But she’s going to keep trying until she gets in there and can officially make the proposal to the other shareholders. And we’ll be watching.
Meanwhile, Penny Pritzker is presumable going to have some confirmation hearings. Maybe we could get one of our allies in the Senate to ask her about whether or not she would support this. A commerce secretary in an allegedly liberal, union backed, Democratic administration will certainly be in favor. Right?