Sunday, July 27, 2014

When the Market Basket Workers Fight Back, Everyone Wins

I didn't make this, but it sums up the movement's feelings pretty well

Market Basket supermarkets, my first-ever place of employment, has made the news for its companywide demonstrations against the ousting of former president Arthur T. Demoulas as part of a longtime family rivalry.  Arthur T.’s firing led to employee demonstrations in front of every store (“Honk if you love Artie T!”), a call for shoppers to boycott Market Basket, and empty grocery shelves as truck drivers refuse to deliver products. 

The rivalry between the two Demoulas families has been longstanding as the board of directors split into two factions: one in favor of keeping employee benefits substantial and its store prices ridiculously low (Arthur T.’s side), and the other (led by Arthur S., a.k.a. the Bad Arthur) plotting to make more money by raising prices and looting the employee profit-sharing pool.  The pictures on the movement’s Facebook page sum it up pretty well.

I don’t work for Market Basket anymore, but the Warner store was a big part of my life for a long time.  I spent most of high school and college there, used its paychecks to buy my first two cars, and spent a great many hours in its dairy cooler goofing off with my friends. It’s also where I learned about work, how not to fake sick when going to a music festival, and how to balance a part-time job with school, creative work, and a social life.

It’s more than just nostalgia, though, that drove me to follow the saga of the company where I once earned my living stocking the half and half shelves; it’s what the Market Basket battle represents in our country’s struggle to counter trends of increasing imbalance.

Right now, Market Basket employees earn twice yearly bonuses, varying in size depending on the worker’s wages and the time spent at the company.  They’re also offered shares in an employee profit-sharing program where they can cash out a large sum of money after retiring.  Again, this amount varies depending on the time spent with the company.  In an age where the pension and profit sharing programs of the post-war era have been dismantled in favor of individual retirement plans, Market Basket offers its workers (even the part-time ones) a long-term deal that rewards loyalty and discourages job-hopping. 

Think of it this way: if the grocery store across the street offers an experienced worker with profit-sharing benefits a higher salary to do the same job, that worker is less likely to accept because the offer involves a greater long-term loss.  Employee longevity offers pluses for both sides as workers enjoy higher benefits and the company spends less money training new employees.  It also gives workers more incentive to stick up for their rights, while a culture of job-hoppers will just grumble and seek out a better deal somewhere else.  The people in charge don't always like that.

Profit-sharing weighs heavily in company politics, as when Arthur T. replaced a full $46 million in bad investments lost in the 2008 crisis.  Such an act did not go unnoticed, and with Artie T. gone, workers fear their profit-sharing and other perks could be taken away. 

Financial matters aside, though, building a loyal worker base offers social benefits that, as Arthur T. has stated, “can’t be measured in dollars and cents.”  Higher benefits mean workers can put their children through college, buy houses without being foreclosed on, and take vacations to improve their quality of life.  Developed skillsets and company loyalty also yield positive results for communities as customers enjoy consistent service and interact with happier employees rather than a revolving door of untrained workers and policies favoring anonymity.  Customers are growing tired of the big-box model anyway, as this 2011 NewEgg commercial suggests.

These values go beyond company profits and bottom lines.  Contrary to what Mitt Romney might think, corporations are just abstract entities existing around the people who work for them.  When real, human workers (the people who make up the majority of the company) are seen as transient and expendable rather than loyal members of the group, it becomes easier for CEOs to dismiss them as undeserving of the company rewards while they quietly increase their own salaries.  Americans are becoming more aware of increasing gaps between the top and bottom of the corporate hierarchy, and one way to discourage such behavior is to consider all members of a company as playing for the same team.

It’s one thing, though, for us to sit around on the internet discussing poor working conditions and another to actually do something about them.  The Market Basket delivery boycotts and employee protests (thousands attended the Tewksbury rally on Friday) are the closest I’ve seen to a full worker strike in my area, the kind of Upton Sinclair/Sylvester Stallone-style protests that gave us the five-day workweek, safer working conditions, and hundreds of other benefits that people every day take for granted.  The strength of the Market Basket protests sends a clear message that corporations can’t manipulate workers and get away with it, and that people will take action when they’re treated unfairly.

Some may argue that with capitalism, workers are free to get a new job if working conditions don’t meet their satisfaction, and that a competitive free labor market can only help workers as companies fight to win their favor.  Unfortunately, though, with nationwide unemployment still at 6.1% and some states as high as 7.9%, finding a new job is easier said than done.  Worse still, if every company offers low wages and minimal benefits, what incentive does a new company have to offer more when it knows that workers will settle for less?

The Market Basket workers have said they’re not going to give in until Arthur T. comes back.  Meanwhile, the bad publicity, empty store shelves, and lost revenue have prompted rumors of Arthur T.’s buying out the other side as the quickest path to resolution.  No matter what the outcome, the New England grocery world isn’t likely to remain the same, and if we’re lucky, both workers and board members everywhere will take notice.


Joe said...


Anonymous said...

Well written, Ian.

deborah said...

Well said Ian!