New England newspapers have been closely following the Market Basket saga over the past few weeks. For me, the most interesting aspect of the story has been how the employees of the grocery chain have reacted to the power struggle among high-level executives. President Arthur T. Demoulas was fired in June by the board controlled by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. That move was the most recent dramatic twist in a feud that has lasted several decades. The backstory of the family feud is that in the 1990’s, Arthur S.’s side of the family successfully won a lawsuit that found Arthur T.’s father, had defrauded Arthur S.’s side of the family out of company shares. The judgment awarded the Arthur S. side of the family $500 million. Since then, however, ownership of the company has still been almost equally divided and the two cousins have relentlessly fought over the business.
More often than not, when there are news stories of workers mobilizing, the dispute is squarely centered over workers’ rights – whether it be pay, benefits, etc. – and not over changes in leadership at the executive level. And rarely do we see worker mobilization where the employees are not unionized. Here, the story is different. Market Basket employees are mobilizing in solidarity of an executive that they believe is instrumental in running a successful company that puts “people before profits.” As a result of their efforts, they are successfully raising awareness and making their point. Company profits have dwindled since Arthur T. was fired.
The mobilization started on July 12, 2014, when workers at a Burlington, Massachusetts store placed pamphlets in customers’ plastic shopping bags that read “We are Market Basket and we need your help!” This initial move came shortly after Arthur T. was fired. A few days later, several executives in support of Arthur T. issued a non-negotiable demand that he be reinstated. The company released a press statement indicating that they were “trying to be respectful as employees work through the challenges of the transition.” When the company didn’t listen, the workers took action.
On July 18th, a group of approximately 2,000 employees stationed themselves outside the company’s headquarters in Tewksbury, MA, asking for Arthur T. to return, despite warnings from management that they would be fired. Since then, there have been at least 8 supervisors fired. Additionally, 300 warehouse workers and 68 drivers have refused to make deliveries leaving many of the markets’ shelves bare.
This movement grew well beyond the employees – loyal customers began boycotting Market Basket, holding up signs in support of Arthur T., and posting on social media about the issues. Clearly, the firing of Arthur T. set off an outpouring of emotion that those in charge simply did not expect.
The efforts of these employees are a great example of the power of mobilization in the workplace. There is no question that these people are backing Arthur T. because his business style is to take care of his workers. Not only did his style create a desirable work environment, but that clearly translated into a highly successful company.
We’ll have to wait to see how the story unfolds in the coming weeks, but I’m hopeful that Market Basket company executives will see the value in treating employees fairly as Arthur T. had done so well. Employees are the lifeblood of the company, if you don’t treat them well, you can’t expect to succeed.
About the author: Katherine Gatti is an attorney at the workers’ rights law firm, McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 207-725-5581.