clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Unionized athletes need to stop crossing picket lines and start supporting fellow workers

Why pro sports teams have been crossing UNITE HERE hotel picket lines and how they can start showing solidarity instead.

Original photo: Getty Images

It should have been an easy opportunity to show solidarity. It should have been a friendly, comradely way to unite against oppressive bosses. Instead, professional athletes from the various North American sports unions have, again and again, put themselves ahead of the striking Marriott hotel workers, and crossed the picket lines that were put up in early October 2018. As if these hotel workers didn’t already have enough of an uphill battle ahead of them against the world’s largest hotel company, they now have to contend with athletes and sports unions ignoring their fight.

That has to stop.

First, it was MLB’s New York Yankees, arriving in Boston, Massachusetts for the start of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox on Oct. 4. They stayed at the Ritz-Carlton — their usual lodgings — rather than changing to one of the many hotels in the city where workers were not on strike and that were suggested by UNITE HERE, the union leading the strike, as alternatives [Disclosure: I’ve donated to UNITE HERE Local 26’s strike fund]. When SB Nation asked the Major League Baseball Players Association for comment, we were told, “From what we understand, these workers have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for more than six months. They deserve to be heard and deserve our support.” Granted, the Yankees crossing the picket line did help the striking hotel workers get press, but it certainly was not due to support from the visiting team from the Bronx nor from the MLBPA.

Imagine how much more powerful a show of support the MLBPA and the Yankees could have made by posing for photographs with the striking workers from Local 26 before heading to their new hotel full of employees who weren’t fighting against a corporate behemoth? Imagine if the MLBPA had arranged for Red Sox players to join the Yankees for this moment, too: two historic rivals, about to face off in a playoff series, but not so antagonistic that they would allow it to get in the way of showing solidarity with fellow union workers? A video of Red Sox and Yankees players chanting the workers’ slogan, “One job should be enough,” holding up signs in support of their fight for better wages, protections against sexual harassment, and improved working conditions in general for what is a strenuous, taxing job that doesn’t pay workers enough to live in the expensive cities the hotels are located in. Sadly, imagining is all we can do.

One of the reasons the West Virginia teacher strikes worked this year — and helped to inspire teachers strikes elsewhere across America — is that the teachers showed incredible solidarity both in their organizing and in their demands. The teachers didn’t just go on strike for wages that improved on their dismal ones: they also fought until all West Virginia state employees received a raise better than what elected officials had managed to procure for them in previous decades, better health care, and long overdue improvements to the schools themselves. They fought for a better community — not just themselves, not just in a vacuum.

The Yankees had a chance to rally national support for the hotel workers by showing some themselves. But, the team didn’t fight in solidarity, or at all. Afterward, the MLBPA sent out a brief statement that lacked an apology for crossing a picket line, with a vague notion of support for the workers included.

When the Houston Astros showed up in Boston for the American League Championship Series later in October, they did change their hotel accommodations to avoid crossing the picket line — an improvement, to be sure. The Los Angeles Dodgers did no such thing for the World Series, however. Unlike with the Yankees, where it could be argued that news of the strike was sprung upon them too late to change their reservations, this was a conscious decision by all involved.

According to UNITE HERE, the Dodgers did explore changing hotels to avoid crossing the picket line, but ultimately stayed in a Marriott property anyway. The reason? There weren’t enough suites in the alternative hotel options, and player contracts require suites.

UNITE HERE’s president, Brian Lang, spoke to SB Nation about the Dodgers crossing the picket line at the time of the incident:

The bottom line is workers out there who are on their third week of striking, who live paycheck to paycheck, who are fighting for a livable income so one job would be enough. You’ve got millionaire ball players who would rather sleep in a hotel, even if it’s struck, because it has suites.

How is it that the MLBPA has not put a solidarity clause in place as union policy, so that if a situation like this occurs, MLB players can show support to fellow union members rather than creating a scenario where Dodgers’ players can simply throw up their hands and say there aren’t enough suites for us to show solidarity today? That should exist, as soon as possible.

It’s not just MLB players who failed to join with the striking hotel workers, however. The NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers crossed the picket line in Boston in late-October — weeks into the strike — as did the Edmonton Oilers when they visited the Bruins. The NBA’s Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls both crossed the same UNITE HERE picket line for games against the Boston Celtics.

Visiting teams aren’t the only guilty party: the Celtics hosted a fundraiser at the Westin Boston Waterfront, a Marriott property, in October while workers were striking at that site. If you believe it would have been difficult to change the location of a fundraiser at the last minute, St. Anthony Shrine pulled it off. It moved an annual fundraiser scheduled that same month at the same Westin just days before it took place to avoid crossing the picket line. Upon moving the event to another Marriott property where workers were not striking, St. Anthony Shrine officials explicitly expressed support for the hotel workers in a press release.

The Astros aren’t alone among sports teams in changing their hotels — the NBA’s Washington Wizards also avoided crossing a picket line in San Francisco in October, and the Toronto Maple Leafs changed hotels during a November road trip to Boston — but for too many teams the decision has been to just go about business as usual.

At this point, simply stopping the crossing of the picket line isn’t enough. This is now a month-plus of sports union members ignoring the plight of hotel workers in Marriott properties across the country, putting their own needs and comforts ahead of those struggling. Not only should these teams and unions immediately cease crossing the picket lines and begin to show solidarity with the striking workers, suite clauses in contracts be damned, but there should be a price for all of this flagrant ignoring of striking workers, too.

The MLBPA, NBPA, and NHLPA should be writing checks to UNITE HERE for its strike fund. These unions, by virtue of not rallying their members in support of the strike, have damaged it: Marriott knows they will continue to receive business from high-profile clients, even though they’re union members themselves, and this has made the life and struggle of these workers worse. Donating to the strike fund of these hotel workers will not only show support in public — actual, material support and not just support through platitudes — but will allow these workers an even longer stretch of time in which they can battle Marriott for the protections and wages they deserve.

MLB players have not been on strike since 1994, before anyone currently in the league was around to experience it. NBA and NHL players have endured lockouts more recently, but those labor fights never lacked for attention. Even if this hotel strike feels removed from their individual needs, especially when focused on something like the World Series, these pro sports unions need to better elevate the connections between all labor disputes and give their members support in choosing a solidarity that can bring meaningful attention to the plights of others. Opening up their wallets wouldn’t hurt the goal of workers of the world uniting, either.