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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Random thoughts on Market Basket

Telegraph Editorial

The only thing we know for sure about the whirlwind that has played out the last few weeks around the Market Basket supermarket chain is that we have never seen anything quite like it.

Neither has anybody else. ...

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The only thing we know for sure about the whirlwind that has played out the last few weeks around the Market Basket supermarket chain is that we have never seen anything quite like it.

Neither has anybody else.

Workers of the 71-store operation in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, and we get that store employees want “Artie T” reinstated as their leader. We should all work for bosses who inspire such loyalty.

The more the events of the last few weeks have played out, the more we realized just how unusual the whole thing is. Some random thoughts in that regard:

n It’s not strictly about the money. Most employee job actions are rooted in either money, working conditions or a combination of the two. Market Basket employees are well-compensated by the standards of the grocery industry, and nobody is asking for more money in this instance, at least in the short-term. Instead, workers are worried about long-term changes that may or may not come to pass that could affect their compensation and the company culture, and they’re assuming the worse. Who knew that profit sharing, paying a livable wage and remembering your workers’ names could engender such loyalty? Tycoons take notice.

n It’s not the typical labor vs. management showdown, either. What’s the world coming to when you have store managers and the people they supervise walking the same protest line? The Market Basket story lacks a true Norma Rae angle, where oppressed employee stands up to repressive industrialist with a track record of exploiting workers, but employees have successfully managed to place the black hat on the company’s board of directors.

n Speaking of which, Market Basket employees don’t want to hear it, but the board of directors was within its rights to fire Arthur T. Demoulas, which is not to suggest it was the smart thing to do. In fact, we bet some board members secretly wish they could do the whole thing over; especially considering what it has cost them in lost revenue and the declining value of the company. But the board of directors had the right to do what it did, even if it wasn’t right … or smart.

n The idea that workers would put in a shift at a business (even one with bare shelves and a mere trickle of the usual customer flow) and then go hold up signs on the curb urging people not to shop there might be unprecedented. Not only that, but those same employees also stormed company headquarters in their off hours. Whoever heard of such a thing?

n Almost as remarkable is the way customers have taken it all in stride and sided with MB employees, even as they complain about paying higher prices at other stores.

n The whole thing may be just a fluke, or it might suggest that shareholders have, in some way, bumped up against the invisible limits of capitalism and greed; sure, they may own the company, but they don’t own the hearts, minds or souls of employees.

n It’s too early to say whether this employee uprising is a model that’s transferable to other sectors of the economy or a sign that the chickens of economic inequality have come home to roost, but you can bet there are a lot of smart people out there mulling over those very questions.

n Market Basket employees have shown courage and solidarity, but a lot of them are scared, too. One employee called The Telegraph to request that his photo not be run in the paper. “I’ve got a family,” he said nervously. He’s walking a fine line by biting the hand that feeds his family, and he knows it. Still, he was willing to risk it by lending his voice to a cause he believes in. It’s what labor unions used to be about.

n Board members are probably also scared – that they won’t be able to get themselves out of the corner they’ve boxed themselves into. The difference is that wealthy board members don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, though it seems clear for the moment that it won’t be from a Market Basket store.