by Rand Wilson and Peter Olney
[Ed. Note: The unusual and lengthy strike at Market Basket, a regional supermarket chain centered in Eastern Massachusetts, garnered regional and even national media attention. The object of the strike, led by local mangers, supported by workers at the store and by warehouse and trucking workers who refused to deliver groceries, and by a strong consumer boycott, was to reinstate Arthur T. Demoulas, a fired former CEO who promised to retain the chain's popular paternalistic culture. This article is reposted from the excellent Stansbury Forum (stansburyforum.com) with the permission of the authors.]
After a weekend of last minute haggling and prolonged negotiations, a settlement of the Market Basket dispute was announced Wednesday night bringing to a close one of the most dramatic and inspiring labor struggles in the United States in many a year. The settlement was not immediately about wages or benefits or job security language. These employees don’t even have a union! The settlement was about who would be their boss and CEO. In a highly unusual management-led action, they paralyzed the company’s 71 stores and promoted a devastating consumer boycott to get previously fired CEO Arthur T. Demoulas back and they won.
Most of the 25,000 workers from part-time checkers to big shot regional managers will be returning to work immediately. In fact, during most of the dispute, most of the checkers and in-store personnel worked, converting their stores and parking lots into protest platforms where the few remaining customers were engaged in intense discussions about the MB dispute. Where once the walls of a store were adorned with promotional ads, now they were decked-out with signs extolling the virtues of “Arthur T.” and their desire to maintain his business model over his cousin Arthur S. The strike was a strategic one by a combination of key workers in trucking and warehousing and top and middle managers whose industrial actions prevented any perishables from reaching the stores. Market Basket became nothing but a big dry goods chain.
Threats of firing and numerous “drop dead” days for employees to return to work came and went, virtually ignored by the workforce that was out. The power of a united and strategic workforce acting forcefully with broad consumer support rocked the whole of Eastern Massachusetts and its 30 stores in New Hampshire and Maine.
Would the workers have been better off in a union? Yes, of course. There is no substitute for the power and voice that collective bargaining provides for workers. Yet, the great irony here is that if Market Basket workers had been in a union, it’s nearly impossible to imagine them striking to restore their fired boss and defeat the Wall Street business model of his cousin Arthur S. A no strike clause and the narrow post WW II vision of our labor unions would surely have prevented that.
We should also point out that warehouse and trucking is usually with the Teamsters in unionized grocery stores. Often the decision to respect UFCW picket lines is not always forthcoming or impossible because of contract language.
An NLRB charge was filed by several employees arguing that the company’s threats against them constituted a violation of their Section 7 rights to protest and redress their “wages, hours and working conditions.” If a settlement hadn’t been reached, a National Labor Relations Board Administrative law judge would have had to rule on whether the discharge of the CEO constituted a “unilateral change in working conditions!” The employees certainly saw that it did — and put their own lives on the line because they saw their own conditions inextricably bound up with who was their CEO.
Below are some lessons from this extraordinary struggle that we draw for the rest of the labor movement:
- Not all workers pack an equal punch– Strategic workers in trucking and warehousing are crucial to interrupting the flow of goods, particularly perishables. Current labor laws (especially in the private sector) exclude many of the most strategic workers making meaningful strike activity much harder.
● Management rights are workers’ rights– Unfortunately not since the UAW’s Walter Reuther has the U.S. labor movement sought any real say over operating and management decisions. Instead, we’ve surrendered to the narrow “management rights” clause written into virtually every union contract. Yet, these decisions, as the MB workers demonstrated, are crucial to the livelihood of workers.
● A real strike stops production – Campaigns at Wal-Mart and in fast food have called the exit of a handful of workers from stores and fast food outlets “strikes.” But most have failed to stop production. Market Basket workers (management and labor) engaged in a true “strategic strike” and the camera shots of empty shelves and empty stores were a compelling image that needed no virtual enhancement or Facebook ‘likes’ to be real.
● Community support is key – The depth of support in the massive boycott where customers taped their receipts from Stop and Shop, Whole Foods and Hannaford’s to the windows of Market Basket was an essential part of the victory. For many customers this was a deep hardship, but the passion and energy of the workers and Market Basket’s low prices underlay consumer’s commitment to stay away until victory.
Union or “not-yet-union,” one fundamental lesson is that there are no shortcuts to deep organizing at the point of production. Labor strategists and organizers who are impatient with that process and believe that social media and corporate leverage can substitute for the basics are doomed to failure.
Following this monumental struggle, Market Basket and its workers will never be the same. To reach a settlement, Arthur T. enlisted the notorious private equity firm, BlackRock to buy one third of the company. As a result, the Market Basket culture and its manager’s paternalistic practices may significantly change. Meanwhile, Market Basket’s workers expectations have never been higher and the sense of their power – even without the managers’ support – can’t be denied. The vast majority of workers are part-time and low paid. The UFCW is actively reaching out to enlist support. Stay tuned because there is undoubtedly much more to come!
Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.
Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California.