In New England, the Market Basket supermarkets are known for their low prices and friendly staff. I am a loyal Market Basket shopper along with many people who claim they have saved for shopping there. The constantly full parking lot and long lines at the cashiers are a testament to the supermarkets’ popularity and success.
But Market Basket's lines are short and the parking lot empty today, due to an a two-week old worker-led strike and an ongoing customer boycott.
It all started when Market Basket’s beloved former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas was fired by the board on June 23. There is a long history of family feuds in the board. You can read about that here and here. The non-union workers have organized themselves and are calling for Arthur T to be reinstated. Part-time workers at my local Market Basket in Somerville, MA, told me that only the managers and full-time employees remain in the store.
The part-timers have been holding signs outside of the store calling on the public to boycott the supermarket. And it’s working. A long time Market Basket customer shared with me “I support Market Basket because it keeps prices as low as possible which will not be possible with new management”.
Last week I went to my local Market Basket to speak to some of the striking workers. Many, in fear of reprisal did not want to identify themselves and refused being photographed. Although anonymous, their demands are clear—they want Arthur T back. As I stood with the striking workers on the sidewalk of a busy avenue, countless of vehicles and pedestrians showed their support for the workers. A Market Basket customer made his own sign of support and stood a few feet away from the workers. Drivers beeped their horns in support, the workers cheered.
When I asked Rosa, a stocking employee of 16 years, why she was protesting, she told me that there is too much to lose at stake. She is concerned that the benefits and pay she has will be cut and that the work environment will change. She proudly told me: “I don’t want to work for anybody else.” She commutes over an hour to and from work every day. Her schedule is flexible and she likes her 7am-3pm hours. If she needs time off, the managers grant it without a problem—“this works for me and I’m happy. I don’t want this change” she said. She plans to retire at Market Basket.
Octavio, a maintenance worker for 6 years expressed similar views. “We, the part-timers, have good benefits we wouldn’t get at other jobs” he said.
The part-timers receive health insurance, a pension plan, time-off during holidays and at any time when they need it. But while Octavio is afraid that the protests will lead to mass firings, he believes that it is worth it. He and the other workers I spoke to don't know the new CEO and are afraid he will cut their hours and benefits in the name of profit. They also fear that the affordable prices of the groceries will be a thing of the past and they won’t be able to afford food shopping at their workplace.
The striking workers are being kept in the dark about the future of Market Basket. Octavio and Rosa had not seen or heard any news from the new CEO. All their news come from TV or radio. Octavio told me “we know just as much as you do, we haven’t heard anything from the board or our managers.” And this seems to be the problem with the new CEO as well, “we don’t know what this guy is like. What are his views?" A worker who remained anonymous shared.
The loyalty of the workers to their former CEO is noteworthy. Octavio proudly told me that he had seen Arthur T tour the Market Basket facility he works at once. “I saw him from far away but he was here”. Rosa said “he is my CEO and I will be sad if he doesn’t return.” Arthur T’s legacy may be how he made his workers feel valued. Good managerial practices, flexible schedules, time-off and benefits were all it took to achieve this. Arthur T’s practices demonstrate that valuing the workers can increase their productivity, happiness and loyalty.
These protests show how much workers are willing to risk for decent work conditions, fair pay and benefits. The Market Basket board is currently considering an offer from Arthur T to regain control of the company. The workers and the community are hopeful, because Market Basket has been proof that the model of treating workers in a dignified way while remaining profitable can work.