Labor, management and Market Basket

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.

Market Basket employees celebrate the return of Arthur T.

Market Basket employees celebrate the return of Arthur T.

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.



Things aren’t always what they appear to be

I think that Chris Matthews and others may have been taken in by the first footage released showing the Fox News contributor, Steven Crowder, being punched by a union supporter in a scuffle outside of the Capitol builing in Michigan.  Both Salon and the New York Times are reporting this morning that Crowder edited the tape to omit the fact that union guy had been knocked down before he got up and took a swing at Crowder.

The Times reports

Unfortunately for Mr. Crowder, a look at the video broadcast on the Sean Hannity show appears to show quite clearly that he left out an important section of the footage when he put together his edit. A section of the Fox News broadcast preserved by the Web site Mediaite shows that Mr. Hannity’s producers at Fox News started the clip five seconds earlier than Mr. Crowder did. What the extra footage reveals is the man who punched Mr. Crowder being knocked to the ground seconds before and then getting up and taking a swing at the comedian.

There is one more anomaly in Mr. Crowder’s edit of the footage shot by his associates. The still frame he used for the clip’s title image on YouTube, which offers a much clearer image of the man punching him, was obviously shot by a second camera, from an entirely different angle than the rest of the footage he presented of the man hitting him.  If Mr. Crowder wants to clear up the mystery of exactly what happened just before he was punched, it might make sense for him to release any footage of the incident shot from that second angle.

Poor Chris was trying to be so even handed by decrying the union supporters for condoning violence.

Fox News revealed selective editing of punched Fox News contributor

I think that as the Republicans become more and more anti-union in the states and even more obstructionist in Congress, things will only get uglier.  And perhaps this is good for the other side giving workers and unions a wake-up call.

It is now being reported that Crowder has admitted punching the union protester.

Photograph:  A still from the Crowder video.

Union negotiations and health care benefits

Next week my bargaining unit will have an all employee meeting to prepare for bargaining for a new contract.  Our current contract, like a lot of city contracts, ends September 30.  So what will be the most contentious issues:  Wages and Health Care.

Last year, we narrowly voted to support the Mayor by putting off a scheduled 2.5% raise what was to be effective at the beginning of the current contract year.  What will happen to that raise?  We gave up money under the general threat of layoffs – a ridiculous proposition in my unit which is about 95% federally funded and with stimulus funds to hand out, we are swimming in money compared to general funded agencies like the libraries, police and  schools.  The teachers and police, by the way, voted against a freeze and no one was laid off – at least not yet.  I judge our changes of getting any kind of COLA to be slim to none – except maybe that elusive 2.5%.

So that leaves health care benefits.  I admit we do have a great deal.  The employee paid part is low and the co-pays small but it does cost the city a bundle.   This is a chart from the Boston Globe.

Looking at the chart it makes sense that we would agree to joing GIC.  And certainly retirees whould join Medicaid.  (My bargaining unit agreed to that last year for future retirees.)  But here are the political problems.

Sean Murphy, in his series of Globe articles, writes

Public employee unions are leery of changes to municipal health care plans.

Brad Tenney, secretary-treasurer of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, an umbrella group of local unions, said his members are willing to “sit down with leaders on Beacon Hill and in the municipalities to reach a meeting of the minds.’’

“We recognize the significant cost of health care,’’ he said. “But we feel it is unfair to look at health insurance in a vacuum. Members gave up pay raises or accepted smaller pay raises through the years for the health care benefits they have.’’

Public employee unions and retiree groups, which make generous donations to the treasuries of many state officer-holders, are well-connected on Beacon Hill.

In brief interviews on Monday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray expressed little desire to strip union employees of long-held collective bargaining rights. Murray also said she did not believe the GIC was capable of accepting cities and towns without increasing its staff.

The GIC provides health insurance for about 300,000 state employees, retirees, and elected officials, including employees and retirees of numerous independent authorities. State law allows the GIC to adjust the amounts subscribers pay in premiums and copayments without union negotiations.

I think that last sentence is at the heart of why a lot of unions, including mine, are reluctant to endorse the move to GIC, but I think it will be a big part of the bargaining this year.  I also think Tenney has it right that health insurance isn’t something to be looked at in a vacuum.  I was on the bargaining team last round and we worked very hard to make sure that the combination of wage increases and health care costs did not result in a negative amount for any employees.

Kevin Cullen sums it all up in his column in the Sunday Globe

In the case of cities and towns, we taxpayers are the owners, and we’ve got no gun. Taxes come out of a spigot we can’t shut off. And if we don’t pay taxes, we’ll be escorted to jail by some guy whose health plan we’re paying for. The idea that taxpayers are forced to underwrite health care plans that the vast majority of us can only dream about is more than galling.

But aside from being good doobies, and in some cases averting layoffs, what’s the incentive for the unions to give up their benefits?

Before you go bashing the unions, which is irresistible in this case, would you, short of having that gun to your head, give up benefits?

After Murphy’s stories ran, the Boston Foundation put out a report saying that the only way we can stave off the financial ruin of many cities and towns is for the Legislature to stand up to the vested interests and change the law, forcing municipal employees to shoulder more of their health care costs. The report also urged mayors and other municipal executives to force retirees onto Medicare at 65.

So the financial solvency of many cities and towns rests on the premise that politicians will do the right, as opposed to the expedient, thing by going after two of the most politically active demographic groups in the state, the unions and retirees.

God help us.

Murphy’s stories have caused understandable anger. But they should also cause everybody to pick up the phone and tell the pols in Washington they have to put aside the ridiculous charade that has passed for debate and produce something that will improve the way health care gets doled out and, just as important, rein in runaway costs.

It is hard to say what will happen with municipal unions.  I have a feeling that since we can’t strike, we will be working without a contract for a while.  But there is some hope.  The workers from one of the largest supermarket chains have announced just a short while ago that a strike had been avoided.

Grocery workers this morning approved a new contract with Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., ending months of tense negotiations and averting a threatened strike.

A day after reaching a tentative agreement with the supermarket chain, some 2,000 union members agreed to a three-year deal that will boost wages and preserve benefits, said a spokesman for the area branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“Through the hard work of negotiators, we were able to reach an agreement that maintained our great health and pension benefits and provided general wage increases,” said Jim Carvalho, a spokesman for UFCW Local 1445, which represents 36,000 Stop & Shop employees in southern New England.

So maybe there is hope.  And the bottom line is everyone should have access to the kind of benefits government workers have.