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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

From pals to pariahs

Things sure have changed around here. We’ve gotten to the point in this city, with its proud working tradition, where being close to unions is seen as a liability.

Mayoral candidate Marty Walsh is having the stuffing kicked out of him for being too cozy with labor. A slew of unions have endorsed the former union official, sending along fat campaign contributions. He’s constantly asked about his union ties by reporters and debate moderators. The prospect of a Mayor Walsh inspires something close to dread in the business community.

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It may be heretical to suggest this, but a little discomfort among corporate bigs might not be a bad thing.

I get the trepidation when it comes to some unions. Boston Firefighters Local 718, whose members have endorsed Walsh, have behaved like obstructionist bullies over the years, blocking overdue reforms in emergency services. Leaders of the Boston Teachers Union, who are not fans of Walsh and haven’t yet endorsed anyone, do an injustice to dedicated educators by opposing changes that could transform many schools. Neither of them does the shrinking labor movement any favors. And there are legitimate questions here about whether Walsh would stand up to these guys at the bargaining table.

But there are unions, and there are unions. Among those endorsing Walsh is Unite Here Local 26, which represents about half the area’s hospitality workers. As far as I’m concerned, Walsh — and any mayoral hopeful — can be as cozy with these folks as he likes.

Housekeepers in union hotels, like the Ritz-Carlton, make about $18 an hour, and get low-cost health insurance. They won’t get rich cleaning rooms, but many, thanks to pressure from their union, make enough to avoid having to do multiple jobs.

“It’s the best antipoverty program out there,” says union president Brian Lang. Housekeepers in recently unionized hotels were making about $12 an hour before they became members. Others do worse.

Boston is enjoying a massive building boom right now, with many hotels in the pipeline. It would be great if housekeepers in those new hotels had good union jobs that paid living wages that spread the immense wealth generated by one of the country’s most expensive hotel markets into the neighborhoods where workers live. The next mayor should demand as much from every hotel developer hoping to capitalize on the city’s prosperity. It’s only right. You don’t have to be in a union’s pocket to see that.

Besides, there are all sorts of pockets. Take, for example, the deep ones possessed by Millennium Partners, the company that built the Ritz-Carlton. Millennium took over the old Filene’s pit after New York-based Vornado Realty Trust struggled to put together financing. Mayor Tom Menino refused to give Vornado the tax breaks it was seeking to jump-start the project during the recession.

Now, in a breathtaking reversal, the city is considering giving tax breaks to Millennium for residences, offices, and stores on the site. The company’s Boston operation is led by Menino buddy Anthony Pangaro, who told the Globe he needed the breaks to offer lower rents to retailers, who would be pioneers in the area. That’s a ludicrous proposition. A few blocks down Washington Street, another Millennium luxury condo building is 75 percent sold, and it isn’t even finished. If Millennium wants to offer lower rents, they shouldn’t ask taxpayers to subsidize them.

Millennium isn’t the only corporation getting breaks it doesn’t need. Liberty Mutual, the insurer that gave its CEO crazy-lavish pay and perks, managed to get $46 million in tax credits to build its new Back Bay tower — then cut employee benefits. State Street Corp. was offered tax breaks to move to the Seaport, which is long past the pioneer stage.

If I had to choose pockets for mayors to be in, I’d choose workers’ over favored developers’. Better yet: nobody’s pocket at all.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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