They’ve been standing on a picket line for almost all of October, employees of some of Boston’s most posh hotels who are calling for more generous treatment from their corporate overlords. Their protests have brought together activists, allies from other labor unions, and the city’s labor-friendly mayor.
The epicenter of the activity has been outside the Ritz-Carlton — or, as I stubbornly continue to think of it, the “new’’ Ritz — on Avery Street. On Sunday, the picketers suffered the indignity of watching many of the players and staff of the Los Angeles Dodgers stroll past them as they checked in for the start of World Series.
Never mind that the players are themselves members of one of the most successful unions on the planet, the Major League Baseball Players Association. Never mind that the Dodgers organization — the franchise of Jackie Robinson — proudly lays claim to the single greatest piece of social activism in the history of American sports. Never mind that of all the rich people staying at the Ritz-Carlton, a baseball team bears the closest resemblance to the black and brown faces prominent on the picket line.
“A number of our members could be their parents,” said Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26. “It’s great that they get to have better lives, but it’s kind of shameful that they can’t step back and see the people who are working paycheck to paycheck, the sacrifice they’re making, and the bravery and the determination in that kind of act.”
The workers went out on strike Oct. 3, frustrated by the slow progress of contract talks. Their labor action quickly began to spread to other cities: Hotel workers are now on strike in San Francisco, Detroit, Oakland, and a few other cities, Lang said.
The Dodgers were not the first team to cross the picket line. They were preceded by the New York Yankees, which also stayed at the Ritz-Carton during the American League Divison Series.
The Yankees action drew relatively little attention, drowned out by the series itself. But Lang said it struck a nerve when the Dodgers followed suit.
“The first thing I thought about was the legacy of Jackie Robinson,” Lang said. “He stood up for justice. He didn’t just think of himself, he stood up for others, and moved things for others. And for a ballclub that had an icon like Jackie Robinson to cross a picket line, it’s a huge conflict.”
Peter Dreier is a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles who often writes about organized labor and baseball. He also knows Boston well — for years, he was Mayor Ray Flynn’s housing adviser, before moving west in the early 1990s.
Dreier noted that players don’t make decisions about where teams stay, and said the Dodgers organization should have begun considering alternative arrangements after the Yankees crossed the picket line. But he also believes players no longer think of themselves as part of a labor movement, as they did in the 1960s and ’70s.
Indeed, baseball players — whose average salary now stands at roughly $4.5 million a year — have crossed many picket lines over the years. Under the leadership of the legendary union leader Marvin Miller, players went from borderline indentured servants to wealthy young men, but that was now decades ago.
“The union changed everything for them, but probably most of them have no sense of that history.” Dreier said. “They’re probably more concerned about the proceeds from bobblehead sales than they are about crossing a picket line.”
When I talked to Lang Tuesday, he was in a negotiating session. He said his team has seen some signs of progress in the talks, and he cited the support of the public as a cause of optimism. One team’s decision to cross a picket line probably won’t make a difference either way.
Still, it stings.
“I think there [will be] a certain amount of shame when they reflect on what they’ve done.”