It all started so innocently.
On Sunday night, Eireann Dolan — the wife of Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle — was in the car with her husband doing some research on official MLB hats, because her friend was interested in buying one for his son.
But when she searched for New Era — the official manufacturer of baseball caps for Major League Baseball for nearly 60 years — articles immediately popped up about the company closing its unionized shop in Derby, New York, and moving to a non-union shop in Flordia. More than 200 workers are scheduled to lose their jobs as a result.
“It’s basically union busting, plain and simple,” Dolan told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “The only people wearing [the New Era caps made in Derby] are the players, and these are the players in the union, so we want to make sure they’re wearing caps that are made by people earning a union wage.”
MLB has an exclusive contract with New Era for its caps. Most of the caps New Era makes for the MLB — the ones that fans buy — are made overseas. But the contract stipulates that hats worn by players during games must be made in America.
Dolan — who is in the midst of her thesis project at the Fordham Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education — considers research her forte. So when she came across the New Era story, it only took a few miles of driving before she and Doolitle were so immersed in the subject they had to pull the car to the side of the road. It was the day before Spring Training began for Doolittle and the Nationals in West Palm Beach, Florida, and everyone in the MLB Players Association was busy dealing with free agency drama and responding to commissioner Rob Manfred’s press conference. Despite all of that, within 24 hours, Dolan and Doolittle launched the #NewEraHatsOff campaign on Twitter, with the approval of his union.
MLB has an exclusive deal with New Era to make our on-field hats in the US. But now New Era is planning to close its factory in NY next month and eliminate 200 union jobs in favor of non-union (cheaper) labor. #NewEraHatsOff pic.twitter.com/V0G4vCLaud
— Sean Doolittle (@whatwouldDOOdo) February 18, 2019
Taking a principled stand is nothing new for Dolan and Doolittle. They have helped spearhead LGBTQ initiatives in baseball, hosted Syrian refugees for Thanksgiving dinner, and openly called for better mental health services for veterans. This latest issue hit home because Doolittle grew up in Buffalo, not far from Derby, and even has family friends who work at the facility and will lose their jobs if the deal goes through.
But ultimately, they were drawn to this fight because they feel passionately about protecting the rights of union workers.
“As players who continue to stand together it’s important that we also continue to stand in solidarity with the union labor that has helped make our game what it is today,” Doolittle tweeted. “From the garment workers who make our uniforms to the stadium workers, vendors & security staff at our ballparks to the transportation workers who people rely on to get to games — their work makes our game possible. Baseball could not have grown into a [$10 billion] industry without them.”
Unfortunately, Dolan and Doolittle didn’t become aware of this issue until very late in the game. New Era has already reached a deal on severance with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the union that represents Derby workers. That deal will be voted on come March 15. Still, there’s a chance.
“There is a glimmer of hope here,” Dolan said. “Companies change their mind. It’s not over until it’s over.
It helps that there’s recent precedent here. In 2017, MLB officials — including Commissioner Rob Manfred — stepped in to help save the jobs of 600 union workers of Majestic in Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, the plant that produces MLB uniforms.
“Our fans and our players have a unique bond with the uniforms that they wear,” Manfred told the Majestic employees at the time. “And, in fact, our uniforms stir emotions among people. Because you cater to that emotion with the quality work you do each and every day, you are, and shall remain, a part of the baseball family.”
Ultimately, they hope the increased attention and awareness to the cause — with some outside public pressure mixed in — will force New Era to change course. At the very least, they want to send a message to other MLB partners that union busting will not be tolerated.
“Those caps [at the Baseball Hall of Fame] in Cooperstown? They were made in Derby. It’s an iconic symbol,” Dolan said.