A family-feud over a New England supermarket chain is emerging as one of the most compelling labor fights of the summer as well as, observers note, a cautionary tale to corporate America about the value of treating one’s employees well.
On Tuesday, thousands of employees of the Market Basket supermarket chain—from cashiers to warehouse workers to top managers—rallied alongside supporters at shopping complex in Tewksbury, Massachusetts in the fourth major demonstration since former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas was fired by a board headed by his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas in June.
Under the direction of Arthur T., affectionately referred to as “Artie T,” Market Basket was notorious in the region for providing good benefits and fair pay. Cashiers start at $12 an hour and the company shared their billions in profits with multiple yearly bonuses as well as scholarships for those workers enrolled in college.
In the three weeks since Artie T’s ouster, warehouse workers have refused to make deliveries, leaving shelves nearly empty, while most of the 25,000 employees across the chain’s 71 locations are on strike, many picketing outside the stores. In some locations, managers have advocated for customers to boycott, as well.
Though many agree the former CEO’s likable nature had won him widespread approval from his employees, many note that the “unprecedented” nature of the boycotts reveal a larger message about the nature of the corporate-worker relationship.
“It goes beyond loyalty to Arthur,” Steve Paulenka, 40-year employee and Market Basket supervisor of facilities and operations told the New York Times. “We’re worried about the direction of the company, our jobs, our profit-sharing.” Employees fear that the new management will prioritize shareholder returns over worker benefits.
Monday marked the deadline given by current co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and James Gooch to striking employees to return to work or risk being fired. The company is holding a series of job-fairs this week, which they announced in a number of full-page advertisements in local papers. According to reports, striking employees and supporters are protesting outside the fairs while customers are raising money to run advertisements of their own supporting the workers until their demands are met.
In a recent column, Thomas Kochan, co-director of the Institute for Work & Employment Research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, argued that this “broad-based, collective action is unprecedented in modern U.S. labor history,” and thus offers a number of important lessons on running a company, namely: “Corporate America better wake up and start listening to their employees, or they may find themselves listening to them through bullhorns and in the national press.”
Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the American Prospect writes that the anomaly of Market Basket’s success under Arthur T. lies in the effectiveness of what he calls “stakeholder capitalism.”
“The chain appears to have been that rarest of companies in contemporary American capitalism: a community of sorts, in which management has respected and rewarded its workers and consumers no less than its owners,” Meyerson writes.
Though Market Basket employees are not unionized, many labor groups have expressed solidarity with their fight. Massachusetts Jobs with Justice issued a statement vowing their support, saying that the Market Basket uprising “is an inspiring example of what workers can achieve when they stick together” when faced with “the ravages of corporate greed.”
Sunday evening, Arthur T. issued a statement saying he would return to work “immediately” if the board accepted his offer to buy the 50.5 percent of the company shares he doesn’t own. The board issued a counter statement that they are currently “considering strategic alternatives.”