Luring politicians to the annual Labor Day breakfast thrown by the Greater Boston Labor Council is not much of a challenge.
No, with candidates, campaign operatives and labor leaders all working the Park Plaza ballroom just eight days before the Sept. 9 primary, the trick is getting the crowd to pipe down and sit still long enough for someone to say grace.
“They’re in full political mode,” said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was joined by most Democratic candidates for statewide office and both Massachusetts senators. “Everyone is kind of walking their candidates around.”
For Walsh, the breakfast was familiar territory. But this year’s event was the first as mayor for the former labor leader.
“I’ve been to this breakfast many, many years,” Walsh said, “and some years looking at the stage saying, ‘boy, it would be great to be up there some day talking.’”
Monday, he was. But Walsh, who was once head of the 35,000-member Boston Building Trades Council, is on the other side of the bargaining table now. He used the opportunity to call for what he said should be a turning point in unions’ tactics and tone.
“It’s time to do less battling and more building,” Walsh said in prepared remarks, citing new contracts with firefighters, police officers, EMS workers and librarians as evidence of the value of respectful, collaborative bargaining. “You don’t need a bullhorn when you’re in the boardroom.”
Walsh introduced the crowd to Leti Legesse, an immigrant from Eritrea who works -- and was working Monday morning -- as a server at the Park Plaza.
Legesse was also working one morning last November when she delivered a room service breakfast to a hotel guest upstairs. It was the day after the election, and the room belonged to Walsh, the new mayor elect. She recognized him immediately that day and ran over to hug him.
Legesse said Monday she was flattered to be included in the speech -- she even left work briefly to sit at a table with her union president, and stood when Walsh told the story of their meeting.
“The mayor, he supports the union,” Legesse said. “He’s sincere. You can tell.”
Walsh’s speech came as he is working to hammer out a deal with a school bus drivers union whose drivers refused to take part in the annual bidding process for routes, snarling student traffic last month.
“I feel comfortable and confident that we’re going to have full participation by all the bus drivers on Thursday [the first day of school]. I’m not worried about a one-day strike or a wildcat strike,” Walsh said. “We’re also having respectful conversations about how we move forward and hopefully work out a contract.”
Walsh’s call for kinder, gentler unions came in sharp contrast to speeches by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Steven A. Tolman, president of Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
But Warren, who issued fist-pumping exhortations to fight for a higher minimum wage and pay equity, said Walsh “makes a really good point” about labor working in collaboration with the administration and employers, rather than in conflict.
Tolman’s turn at the podium was an energetic call for union solidarity -- “stick together, work together, fight together and win together,” he shouted -- and for “setting aside the little stupid things that might divide us.”
A plea for more respectful, conciliatory unions might not have gone over so well from a mayor without Walsh’s labor credentials.
“I frankly think that the mayor provides a level playing field for workers,” Tolman said. “When you’re dealing with someone whose word is his bond, you have a whole new outlook in the way you do business.”
Tolman acknowledged that his speech was a bit more fiery than the Mayor’s address.
“He’s gotta be mayoral now,” Tolman said. “I can still be who I am.”
While labor issues were top of mind for many, the annual breakfast doubles as a political hotspot, where candidates vie for votes in primaries that can hinge on union support.
Tolman’s brother Warren Tolman,who was endorsed by the AFL-CIO in his run for Attorney General, spoke from the podium; his opponent in the Democratic primary, Maura Healey, wasn’t asked to speak, but went table-to-table working the crowd.
Three Democrats running for governor -- Donald M. Berwick, Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman, -- each appeared well-represented in a crowd plastered with campaign stickers. But by the time their speeches came, the coffee had long since gone cold. The crowd that couldn’t be quieted earlier had largely left the ballroom.
And Leti Legesse was long since back at work.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.