I don’t know how many of you live in New England but we have been transfixed by the 40+ day Market Basket grocery store melodrama. Last night after eleven o’clock, news finally came in that the family feud between two factions of the DeMoulas family has ended and that Arthur T. DeMoulas is back in the saddle again after having been fired as CEO in early June. For years, he had run a business that had no debt; paid 25,000 employees well including part-timers whose minimum wage was higher than the competition; provided bonuses and generous benefits which engendered employee loyalty from workers who spent their entire careers at the company; and kept prices low selling quality groceries to a loyal 2M customer base in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Profits in the millions were distributed to a handful of family shareholders over the years but a feud between cousins came to a head this summer.
The amazing thing about this public uprising is that it went on for so long, becoming more Solomonic by the day (cut the baby in half?). I read today that the senior managers who had been ousted (eight of them fired along with Artie T in early June) had a shadow plan that kept them in touch with vendors week-by-week in order to let them know the status and when to mobilize shipments (this Tuesday in preparation for a reopening today (Thursday.)
Right now, I am watching Artie T. speak to the troops live on TV. His emotional words of thanks and acknowledgement are heartfelt. Rarely has a CEO spoken with so much clarity to explain what the meaning of working for a “family” means, a family where everyone is considered equal (cashiers, baggers, managers, vendors and suppliers.) Truly rare.
Weeks ago, I purchased two Market Basket Strong tee shirts in support of a fund whose purpose was to provide interim pay for truckers and warehouse people who supported the employee strike. They arrived last weekend and I held off sending them to my daughter and sister-in-law this week when it wasn’t clear whether Arthur T.’s deal to buy out the business would prevail. Now that it has, I’m delighted to have a memento to commemorate this class struggle. This is also a small victory for those folks who participated in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which lacked practical goals and suffered from ineffective leadership.
In his speech, Artie T talks about human dignity, mutual responsibility and moral compass. His words embody corporate responsibility towards employees that is rarely heard, never mind an operational business reality. For those of you who don’t live here, please know that we’re talking about seventy-one grocery stores (71!) whose sales total over $4 billion a year! Employees sacrificed a lot during the 42 days of this strike–some employed for 40 years working for Market Basket. To the press, he said, “We’re in the people business first; and in the food business second.”
This may sound like a fairy tale and in a way, it truly is. I’m just waiting to see who will write the definitive book about the Market Basket saga. Whoever it is, I’m hoping it will be a real heavyweight, a reporter whose books lend weight to the seriousness of this story and its impact on American culture. Carl Bernstein (“All the President’s Men) or Doris Kearns Goodwin (Pulitzer prize winning biographer) might do this human drama justice.
The impact of this summer’s Market Basket saga is important nationally. Scholars from business schools, marketing firms and Governors from Massachusetts and New Hampshire have weighed in. One business school professor commented early on that Market Basket will become a cautionary business case study for how boards should not behave!
Thomas A. Kochan, a professor of work and employment at the MIT Sloan School of Management said in a NYTimes article that the episode showed that “the employees are the most valuable asset in this business,” concluding that:
“Market Basket has done more to educate us on how to manage a business than any business case study that’s been written to date.”
These employees were not unionized–they didn’t need to be. Perhaps other business owners will take stock and learn from it. I hope so. In the meantime, Arthur S., the cousin who fired Artie T., got married for the fourth time last Friday. Reportedly, he’s on his honeymoon in Greece. Maybe he’ll decide to stay there!
This is a happy day for a lot of people returning to work, knowing they still have a job and for customers who look forward to shopping again at Market Basket for the long Labor Day weekend. Had the Market Basket employee uprising not succeeded with the reinstatement of Arthur T. Demoulas as its leader, all of us watching for over a month would have witnessed a cynical commentary on the country we live in today. Corporate greed and family vendettas would have won over democracy and lots of heart from people who could ill afford to lose out. It’s a victory for diverse stakeholders (employees, vendors, truckers, warehouse workers and customers) who hung in there together at great personal risk and expense.
With this success, maybe more Americans will wake up and say, “I’m just not going to take it anymore!”
One belated note: I heard on the car radio that when asked how long it would take to restock the grocery stores after a 6 week layoff, one worker said, “I don’t know but I just threw a sleeping bag into my truck, and I’m staying there until it’s done!” You can’t buy this kind of loyalty and commitment!
Here’s an article with a photo of restocked fresh seafood at MB two days AFTER the deal was announced.
And guess what? The Market Basket strike, the biggest, successful non-union labor uprising in recent history succeeded right before Labor Day!
Go, Market Basket!