By all accounts Arthur T. Demoulas was a good boss who not only genuinely cared about the well-being of his employees, but refused to compromise generous employee benefits by placing shareholder value above all else. Much media attention has been paid to the fact that the loyal workers’ only demand – indeed the focal point of their whole campaign – is the reinstatement of “Artie T.”
Needless to say, in today’s hyper-competitive global economy, you’d be hard-pressed to find many instances of workers standing up for their CEO. It is no wonder that this story resonates with so many people, when our national political discourse has been dominated by talk of rising income inequality and exorbitant corporate pay. The conflict between Market Basket shareholders and employees is emblematic of the most pressing issues facing working and middle class people today.
Market Basket workers, despite having above-average compensation and even profit sharing plans, are not unionized. It’s indicative of the poor state of the labor movement and worker’s rights that these protests and work stoppages were only made possible by cooperation between management and workers.
Working under Arthur T. Demoulas, Market Basket associates likely never saw the need for creating a union. Why would they? In the current business climate most people would consider themselves lucky to work for a company that simply doesn’t treat them like shit. Happy employees and satisfied customers felt like they were part of a family. They could take pride in their company, they felt like it was theirs. This sentiment is evident in the outpouring of support and solidarity shown during the past few weeks. Their efforts have brought business to a grinding halt: Market Basket is losing millions of dollars a day as shelves go unstocked and customers shop elsewhere. The fact that all of this has been accomplished without the organization and support provided by a union is inspiring.
For me, the most striking quotes of the last few weeks have nothing to do with the Demoulas family. According to Boston.com former district manager Tom Trainor, “denounced the possibility of unionizing in his address to employees. ‘We are stronger than a union,’ he said. ‘We are a family.’ ”
Another employee added, “In the words of David Ortiz, this is our fucking company.”
Well, the problem is they are not a family, nor is it their fucking company.
No matter how they feel, their employment is still completely subject to the whims of the Demoulas family. They’ve displayed the effect that collective action can have on a company, but without a union they will inevitably fail to take such actions to their logical conclusions. At best, Market Basket employees return to the status quo: working under a benign and beloved CEO. At worst, they end up working under an ownership group with no qualms about maximizing shareholder value at the expense of decent wages and profit sharing, or even losing their jobs.
Workers’ collective action should not only protect the status quo, but fight for better standards – a bigger piece of the proverbial pie. It’s not good enough to “feel” like you have a stake in your workplace because your boss happens to be a nice guy. Real job security is dependent upon actual, defined power arrangements. Without a union to clearly articulate their ideas and fight for compensation or ownership, power will continue to lie with the shareholders, not the employees. Striking and protesting workers have little legal protection and even less control of the situation.
Chris Mackin, founder of Cambridge worker-ownership consulting firm Ownership Associates, told PBS Newshour:
“I think what we see here is the rise of the stakeholder model of the corporation, which here in Northern Massachusetts, these workers and managers are standing up and saying this is really our company. That’s in contrast to the maximum shareholder value mantra that has dominated American finance since the 1980s. There is a Tea Party-like flavor to this, but what’s interesting and different is that they’re pointing their anger not at Washington, D.C. They’re pointing it at a corporate model, a corporate financial model that they think doesn’t work, and that robs them of their livelihoods.”
Real examples of the stakeholder model exist. In fact, some of the most successful employee-owned companies are supermarkets.
Artie T. loyalists, rather than fighting for his return, would be better off in the long-run fighting for the opportunity of ownership.