If you don’t live in New England – you have probably never heard of the Market Basket grocery chain. It has been known for customer service and low prices. I confess that I’ve probably shopped there maybe twice in the last 20 years so I am clearly not a regular. But I know people who swear by Market Basket and, for some, it is the only store in town. Whether you have heard of MB and love it, or don’t know the first thing about the store, there are lessons to be learned for Labor Day.
For more years than I can count, there has been a feud between the two cousins, Arthur S. and Arthur T. who inherited the store. It has involved an epic court battle, and if I remember correctly, disciplinary action against some of the attorneys. There was also an actual fist fight as at one point between the Arthurs. All the while, Arthur T. has been managing the stores and making money for everyone. But, according to the employees and Arthur T., the board wanted to take a bigger share of the profits for themselves and the shareholders who are mainly family members. The board decided to fire Arthur T. Shirley Leung writes in her Boston Globe column
For six weeks, we were mesmerized by the sight of thousands of grocery clerks, cashiers, and other workers protesting at stores, on Facebook, and on the front pages of this paper. They did so at great risk, without the protection of a union, not because they wanted higher wages, but merely the return of their beloved boss, Arthur T. Demoulas.
Who among us would do that? Not many, if any at all. We were riveted because we wanted to be them. These rebellious employees gave voice to the voiceless masses who just wanted to hold on to decent wages for a decent day’s work at a time when fat cats get $50 million paychecks for showing up, and the gap between the rich and the poor is as gaping as ever.
After the Market Basket board ousted Arthur T., these foot soldiers of capitalism kept the story alive when they made flyers protesting his removal and distributed them to customers. Then they reached out to the media and politicians to talk about their improbable demand. Soon workers walked off the job and refused to restock shelves. Customers boycotted in solidarity, putting the economic squeeze on new management to do something.
While it is tempting to portray Arthur T. as the Good Arthur and Arthur S. as the Bad Arthur, as Leung points out Arthur S. and his pals never carried out threats to fire everyone and hire new people. There was an attempt to hold a job fair, but it was never clear how many people came or if anyone was hired. I believe eight people were fired early on, but that example didn’t slow either the employee action or customer boycotts. The governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts got involved. A settlement was announced finally and Arthur T. is buying out Arthur S. so as to become the majority shareholder. He will now be running a severely damage company in deep debt and will be borrowing money to pay for his purchase.
Employees seem optimistic. They returned to work as soon as the announcement was made. Whether the stores can be stocked so there are things for people to buy, whether suppliers can return, and whether Arthur T. can keep to his promise to continue to treat and pay workers well are open questions. If Market Basket can beat the odds and make a comeback to profitability, the story will be studied in business schools and by labor historians for many years. Actually, it will probably be studied no matter what happens.
The Market Basket story is one for this Labor Day. Non-union employees took collective action to save a boss and his practice of putting employees above shareholders. I’ll let Joan Vennochi have the last word.
Most notable is the power of narrative. Market Basket workers used social media as an organizing tool, but, at the same time, they skillfully used old and new media to tell their story before the other side knew what was happening.
And, unless you were Arthur S., it was a story that had something for everyone:
Workers standing up for, not against, management.
The desire to believe in one corporate leader putting the well-being of his workers
over shareholders, in an old-fashioned “It’s A Wonderful Life” way.
Employees of modest means willing to put paychecks for rent and mortgages on the line for principle.
“It speaks to a search and yearning for respect and fairness,” said Lew Finfer, a veteran community organizer who has worked for decades with unions to do just that by promoting better worker pay, conditions, and benefits.
There are lessons here for everyone.
Photograph: JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF