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TOM KEANE

Work stoppage, Market Basket-style

Market Basket workers continued protests in front of the company's Wholesale Distribution Center, where a job fair was being held Monday.

TJim Davis/Globe Staff

Market Basket workers continued protests in front of the company's Wholesale Distribution Center, where a job fair was being held Monday.

Jan. 15, 2018. Downtown Boston was eerily quiet as it entered the third week of a work stoppage by city employees demanding the reinstatement of Martin J. Walsh as mayor.

By now the story is well known. In a rematch of the 2013 election, former city councilor John Connolly took on incumbent Walsh’s bid for reelection. Relentlessly attacking Walsh for putting the welfare of city workers ahead of the welfare of residents, Connolly vowed reform, ultimately winning by a narrow margin. The brief Walsh era, it seemed, was at an end.

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But immediately after a triumphant Connolly was sworn in on New Year’s Day, city workers began slowing down or stopping the delivery of key city services, refusing to work for the new mayor. A modest 3-inch snowfall on Jan. 2 went unplowed, leaving the streets an icy mess. Schools failed to reopen following winter break when grounds crews wouldn’t unlock buildings. Response times to emergency calls for crimes and fires climbed dramatically. Staff at City Hall and other city offices made evident their support for Walsh, picketing during lunch hours and prominently displaying supportive signs at their desks.

“Marty’s our mayor, and this is our city,” said one of the city workers leading the revolt. “Who are these ‘voters’ anyway? Many of them just moved here. Unlike us, they haven’t spent their lives working to build Boston.”

Either in solidarity with the workers or out of frustration with the dismal state of city streets, thousands of commuters stayed away from their offices, electing instead to work from home. Boston restaurants and entertainment venues were nearly empty while nearby cities and towns reported a surge in business. “Welcome to Providence!” said that city’s mayor, Buddy Cianci. “We’re hoping that, having discovered the great theater and fine dining of the Creative Capital, Boston suburbanites keep coming back.”

Travel and tourism officials warned that the city was losing tens of millions of dollars each day. “If this goes on much longer, Boston will be just a backwater,” said one industry expert. Indeed, with two major trade shows threatening to cancel their February bookings at the recently expanded convention center, Seaport area hotels were looking at the prospect of thousands of empty rooms.

A representative for the city workers said the solution was simple: Rehire Walsh. Worried state election officials debated proposals for an emergency election to see if voters might change their minds. “That’s fine,” said one worker, “as long as they elect Marty Walsh. We won’t work for anyone else.”

For his part, new Mayor Connolly has refused calls to resign, saying he is determined to hold on to his job. Immediately following the revolt, he had terminated several high-level employees leading the work stoppage. But in a letter issued yesterday, he was more conciliatory, saying “I want City of Boston workers back to work and reiterate that they can return without fear of penalty.” At the same time, however, he threatened to dock pay and made plans to hold a job fair to find replacement workers.

Pundits generally seemed to support the employees’ actions. “I think it’s important that we understand it’s not only voters with an interest in the city,” said one. “Businesses, tourists, students, and workers are all stakeholders too. All of them — and not just residents — should have a say in choosing a city’s leaders.”

Representatives for the Connolly campaign, however, laid the blame on Walsh, saying he had created a culture of personal loyalty that seemed to trump commitment to the city. During Walsh’s tenure, for instance, wages increased markedly. Even entry-level jobs in the Walsh administration were well-paid, with salaries far exceeding that of nearby towns and cities. Most controversial was a program Walsh called “Share the Success,” which paid city workers a hefty annual bonus based on increases in tax collections. “They know they won’t be getting that under a Mayor Connolly,” said one observer.

Political analysts said that a revolt by city workers seemed unprecedented, although many pointed to the well-known Market Basket work stoppage in 2014 as inspiration for the employees’ actions. “Perhaps they figure that, if it worked once, it’ll work again,” said one commentator. “It makes you wonder how far this thing will go.”

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com
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