Protests cloud Hyatt’s first shareholders meeting

National labor and gay rights controversies come home to roost for Chicago-based Hyatt

(Chicago, IL) – Just six months after becoming a publicly traded company, Hyatt Hotels (NYSE: H) is already facing sharp criticism at home in Chicago and across North America. Today, over one hundred religious leaders and hotel workers held protests outside Hyatt’s first annual shareholders meeting at Hyatt McCormick Place, outraged at how the company is trying to make the recession permanent for workers despite significantly improving industry conditions and Hyatt’s rising share values.

A delegation of over 40 Chicago-area religious leaders went to confront Hyatt’s top decision makers at the shareholders meeting.

Inside the meeting, a former Hyatt housekeeper from Boston, who was fired in August 2009 and replaced by an outsourced worker making minimum wage, appealed to Hyatt’s owners and top executives directly. Together, they called on Hyatt’s majority owners and Chicago’s wealthiest family, the Pritzkers, to not leave workers behind as the company moves forward. Last November, in one day the Pritzkers cashed out over $900 million as part of Hyatt’s Initial Public Offering.

The demonstrations signal a deepening crisis for Hyatt among its core constituencies, including Hyatt workers, religious organizations across the country, and gay rights activists, who fault Hyatt for courting LGBT customers while refusing to sever ties with Doug Manchester—a Hyatt owner and key funder of the initiative to ban gay marriage in California. Today, workers and community allies held simultaneous demonstrations protesting Hyatt in Chicago, Vancouver, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In city after city, Hyatt has used the economy as an excuse to roll back benefits for its hardworking employees and lock workers into a recession for years to come.

On Tuesday, June 8, four hundred hotel workers at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco went on strike, and protests in Chicago come just days after hundreds of workers at the Hyatt Regency Chicago walked off the job in protest of worsening working conditions at Chicago’s largest downtown hotel. Hyatt also sparked a national controversy in 2009, when in Boston, Hyatt fired all of its housekeepers (approximately 100 of them), replacing them with subcontracted workers being paid minimum wage.

“I gave my body—everything I have—to that hotel, and Hyatt disposed of us like we were trash,” said Lucine Wiliams, who worked at the Hyatt Regency Boston for 21 years, before Hyatt fired her on August 31, 2009. Williams traveled to Chicago and participated in the shareholder’s meeting as a proxy, where she appealed directly to Hyatt’s top decision makers.

Nationwide, the hotel industry is rebounding faster and stronger than expected, with a hearty rebound projected in 2011 and 2012. In the six months following Hyatt’s November initial public offering Hyatt’s shares were up over 65% (IPO on 11/5/09 at $25; 5/5/10 traded at $41.86). Despite these trends showing a strong recovery for the hotel industry, hotels are still squeezing workers and cutting staff. While this marks a trend involving several major hotel companies, Hyatt is the starkest example.

“Hyatt has become an emblematic obstacle to our nation’s economic recovery,” says Rev. Calvin S. Morris, Ph.D. and Executive Director of the Community Renewal Society, who led a delegation of dozens of religious leaders into the shareholders meeting. “I’m here today with leaders from many congregations and many faiths to send a message to Hyatt’s owners that we will not sit idly by as Hyatt locks hardworking housekeepers, dishwashers, and doormen into a recession, while one of the wealthiest families in America gets wealthier.”

UNITE HERE International Union represents 300,000 workers in the hospitality, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, laundry, and airport industries across North America.