Monday, August 4, 2014

Striking Market Basket Workers Rally Behind CEO

The actions of Market Basket workers in the last two weeks have been nothing short of remarkable. They have single-handedly--without any union support--shutdown the Massachusetts-based grocery store chain. Like last year's fast-food worker strikes, and the growing "Fight for $15" campaign, the Market Basket walkout is another encouraging sign that low-wage workers have finally reached their limit.

Employees at Market Basket stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Biddeford, Maine are striking in protest of CEO and family heir, Arthur T. Demoulas's ouster. In the latest escalation of a decades-long family feud between Demoulas and his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas over company ownership, Arthur T. ("Artie T." as Market Basket employees affectionately refer to him) was forced out of the family business in a corporate ouster last month.

The Demoulas brothers are heirs to the Market Basket franchise, which originally opened in Lowell, Mass., as Demoulas Super Market in 1917. Market Basket is known throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire for its low prices.

The Biddeford store, which opened last summer, was originally intended to be the first of many in Maine. However, the strike has put any plans for additional stores on hold, indefinitely. Striking workers at all 71 Market Basket locations are encouraging customers to boycott the stores until the situation is resolved.

(Given the lack of union involvement, the protest at Market Basket cannot, technically, be considered an actual "strike." Regardless, many employees are refusing to work until their demands are met--which is essentially the same concept as a labor strike. As such, I use the word "strike" here loosely.)

Market Basket associates now worry their worker benefits--which include profit-sharing options, regular bonuses, and generous sick leave/vacation time--may be in danger. These benefits--which are highly uncommon in the retail industry--are not limited to full-time employees. Part-time workers are eligible for them, as well.

But beyond what some may perceive as motivations of purely personal self-interest, Market Basket workers want to retain their boss because he is, by all accounts, a really great guy.

"Artie T. is a man of integrity," Pat Berry, one of the striking workers at the Biddeford store, told me. "He is a humble leader who takes care of his employees."

Berry is clearly not the only one who thinks so. In fact, nobody seems to have anything bad to say about Demoulas.

Instead, I heard repeated stories of him visiting sick workers in the hospital, of attending funerals for employees or their families, and, on happier occasions, watching associates graduate from high school or college. During the Biddeford store's grand opening about a year ago, Berry recalled, it took Demoulas a full hour to walk from the outside ceremony to the inside of the store because he wanted to personally shake hands with every single person present.

Many of the striking workers held signs that read, "Bring back our 'Daddy,'" referring to Demoulas. Another stated, "Arthur T. is for MB & you and me." A number of workers talked of Market Basket as a "family."

To be certain, Demoulas seems like a relic from a bygone era: A sincere, compassionate boss who actually cares about his employees. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests most professional managers today are, quite literally, psychopaths. At a time when the average corporate CEO makes 330 times the average worker, according to a 2013 study by the AFL-CIO's Executive Paywatch, it is not hard to see why Demoulas is so loved.

As recent story in the Boston Globe (07/31/2014) notes:

The employee rallies on behalf of Arthur T. constitute an extraordinary show of support for a multimillionaire chief executive in an era when most corporate workers barely know their CEOs and would be loath to risk their jobs on behalf of top executives.

But here is what the corporate media won't tell you: The workers are winning.

Last week, Market Basket's co-chief executives warned it would start laying off striking employees who do not return to work by Monday, Aug. 4. The store is hemorrhaging millions of dollars a day, especially in wasted food. Threats of job-losses--however real--aside, this means the walkouts are having an effect. The Market Basket workers have successfully disrupted business as usual. The corporate chieftains are, predictably, angry.

"On their side the workers had only the Constitution," Mother Jones wrote. "The other side had bayonets."

While I would personally like to see the rallying workers take their demands even further--like pushing for worker ownership of the Market Basket stores, for instance--the protests are nonetheless interesting to watch unfold. Taken alongside the "Fight for $15" campaign, they represent yet another sign Americans are fed-up with low-pay, increased hours for decreased benefits, hyper-corporatization, and even, in some cases, capitalism itself.

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle remains the ultimate muckraking expose of the soul-crushing plight of the immigrant working-class in the unsanitary Chicago slaughterhouses. While the book became best known for its revealing, insider account of the lax health regulations rampant in turn-of-the-century industrial America, The Jungle is first and foremost a searing expose of the social injustice inherent in capitalism.

Sinclair writes of the plight of the meat factory workers:

Here is a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality is exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it is under the system of chattel slavery.

Solidarity forever!

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