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Market Basket employees rally around their ousted CEO.

Voices / Column

At Market Basket, workers stand up to corporate greed

Saxtons River

If the employees of Market Basket have their way, at least one nice guy will finish first.

The story of how folks who work for the New England supermarket chain and its customers fought to reinstate their beloved CEO and keep the company’s mission intact makes for a modern day Joan of Arc story coupled with Take Back the Night and Occupy Wall Street tactics. It’s also a model of citizen action and a cautionary tale about what can happen when people have had enough of corporate greed.

It all started in June when, by a slim majority, Market Basket’s board of trustees voted to fire the chain’s CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas. Putting their support behind Arthur T’s rival and cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas — who, many claim, plans to sell the company to a larger supermarket chain — they replaced the long-term, hugely respected CEO with two co-CEOs; one from the grocery chain Albertsons and the other from Radio Shack Corporation.

Employees, who pride themselves on working for a well-managed company with a mission to serve low-income customers well, immediately informed the new CEOs that they wanted Arthur T. back “with full authority” and that they would not work for anyone else.

Instead, Arthur S.’s gang fired eight more senior employees who got the news when couriers showed up at their front doors. Several of these people had worked for Market Basket for 40 years or longer.

That’s when employees and customers swung into action, organizing boycotts, rallies, and media events. Truck drivers refused to deliver goods to the supermarkets, employees went on strike, and customers started posting receipts from other stores on Market Basket windows to show what they’d spent elsewhere.

“It’s not just about the employees,” a cashier who’d been with the company for 20 years told me at the Claremont, N.H. store. “It’s about the people we serve. One man just lost his business here. He comes in now with food stamps, and he’s worried sick about how he’ll feed his family if we become just another Shaws or Hannafords.”

* * *

The extraordinary events taking place to save Market Basket and reinstate its CEO make for an interesting labor-relations case study.

For one thing, Market Basket employees are not unionized. Instead, they have management rallying with them. Somebody — Arthur T. — must be doing something right.

But more important than that is the signal this response is sending to corporate, and political, America:

We’ve had it with a Supreme Court that grants companies personhood and gives employers the right to control our reproductive lives;

We’re fed up with a do-nothing Congress that treats marginalized people like so much detritus;

And we will no longer tolerate corporate (or big bank) greed that fosters monstrous behavior for personal gain.

* * *

If what is happening at Market Basket is a sign of things to come, as many of us suspect it is, we are in for some startling changes.

Picketing workers, multitudinous rallies, and local politicians who stand in solidarity with their constituents will alter the American landscape in ways we might not have seen before, even in the days of Populist movements and anti-war demonstrations.

Because Americans have had enough.

And when enough of them show up to say so, there’s no telling what kind of terrain we’ll be standing on.

We can only hope that it will be terra firma, underpinned by magnanimous motives and ethical behavior and measured by peaceful progress.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #266 (Wednesday, August 6, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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