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Non-union Market Basket workers bring a complicated victory for labor

Market Basket workers protest in support of their fired former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. (girardatlarge.com)

Market Basket workers protest in support of their fired former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. (girardatlarge.com)

This Labor Day, there’s an unlikely workers’ victory to celebrate. Late last week, employees of Market Basket, a New England grocery store chain, ended a successful two-month strike and consumer boycott not for a contract or higher wage, but to reinstate their beloved fired CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Workers at the chain are non-unionized, and the entire two-month campaign took place without union support. They even rejected offers of representation from the Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers — a point that makes this a complicated victory for those concerned about the future of organized labor.

Here’s how it went down: Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas was ousted from the company by his cousin and rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, after a lengthy dispute. In late June, Arthur S. Demoulas and board members loyal to him fired Arthur T. Demoulas, prompting seven top executives to leave the family-owned company. From there, dissent seeped down the chain of command. By the end of July, 25,000 non-union workers from across 61 of the 71 Market Basket stores were effectively on strike. Workers called on Market Basket customers to join them in a boycott; they did, in force. The company, which ordinarily boasts a $4.6 billion annual revenue, lost an estimated $10 million each day the boycott continued. Stores sat empty as workers refused to stock shelves, and contractors cut ties.

Thousands of striking workers and customers held rallies throughout the summer, each time calling on the board to reinstate Arthur T. Demoulas. The governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire intervened on behalf of the “public interest” to try and broker a deal between Market Basket’s warring factions, and to urge employees to return to work. In early August, as the company’s new CEO continued to threaten workers with termination, shareholders began to negotiate with Arthur T. Demoulas over the terms of his reinstatement. On August 28, the board finally agreed to sell back the entire company to Arthur T. Demoulas for $1.5 billion, immediately restoring him as CEO.

While employees were striking for Arthur T. Demoulas’s reinstatement, they also struck for themselves: in his tenure as CEO, Demoulas had garnered a reputation as a friend to workers. Market Basket employees start at $12 an hour, and receive healthcare benefits and a retirement plan. His dismissal was part of a larger restructuring plan aimed at cutting costs and increasing profits, a move that more often than not puts workers on the chopping block. Protesters’ prime targets were Arthur S. Demoulas and the shareholders loyal to him, who they argued were more motivated by corporate profits than giving workers a decent quality of life, or selling customers quality, affordable products. A company employee told Boston public radio station WBUR, “They [the controlling shareholders] just want to destroy the company. In my opinion, they are evil.” The fervor with which employees supported Arthur T. Demoulas might be hard to understand, but at the core of the Market Basket strike-boycott is a firm critique of valuing profits over people.

There’s much more at work here than simple company town-style paternalism. Labor scholar Christopher Mackin likened the victory to the American Revolution: “This is unheard-of in corporate America. It’s like 1776 — we get to pick who governs us.” Whatever the complications, company-wide solidarity and coordination among managers, workers and customers is virtually unprecedented in recent history, and a prime case study for those looking to build working class power. The situation is complex, to say the least, but an exciting win for labor militancy.