The Good King’s Return

Market Basket workers are striking for a “benevolent” boss, but their protest is a reminder of the power of militant workplace action.

(John Patriquin / Portland Press Herald)

For the past month or so, workers at Market Basket supermarkets across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine have been engaged in a somewhat strange series of militant industrial actions.

They have organized picket lines and ground the company’s business to a halt, but it is not a strike in the usual sense. The workers are not unionized. Several hundred warehouse workers and truck drivers are on what could be called a wildcat strike; the other 25,000 store employees are still showing up for work, while at the same time asking customers to boycott Market Basket.

They are demanding the reinstatement of their recently fired CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, deposed by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Arthur T. is an atypically benevolent corporate head. While Market Basket prices are low enough to compete with the likes of Walmart, workers are paid well, have a retirement plan, receive health care, and take part in a profit-sharing scheme. There is a real (and justified) fear that these provisions will be eliminated with a new CEO or the sale of the company to a larger chain.

After the company’s board of directors moved to oust the CEO in a clear attempt to restructure the company, several managers walked off the job and were fired, prompting the warehouse workers and truck drivers to strike.

The workers’ actions are animated by a fierce loyalty toward the CEO. Several workers told me about the tendency of ATD, as they call him, to appear in stores, look them in the eye, and speak to them as equals. A striking truck driver told me a story about ATD trying to get a worker’s daughter who was injured in a car accident into a more sophisticated hospital trauma unit. For some, the affection is generations old — ATD’s father, the former owner, was known to walk into a store and bag groceries or simply give them away for free around the holidays.

The walkout led to the highly unusual call by workers for a boycott at seventy-one stores across three states.

The boycott has been shockingly effective: Normally packed stores are almost empty, shelves lie unstocked, and the checkout aisles are filled with unused shopping carts. Industry analysts have estimated the company’s daily losses at $10 million since the boycott began.

For some on the Left, the absence of a cut-and-dry, workers vs. capital struggle is disconcerting. Endorsing worker-supported noblesse oblige is, at best, uncomfortable; at worst, the protests buttress liberal paternalism and are a step backward for workplace democracy and worker-led struggle.

The truth is a bit more complicated. Workers have attributed good working conditions to a generous CEO, and, so far, have not articulated a vision that goes far beyond him. Yet these protests are, at their core, a demonstration of worker power at the point of production and capital circulation, the likes of which are not often seen in American labor, even among unionized workers.

Market Basket workers are doing what is generally unthinkable in the precarious service economy: exerting their power as workers and risking their paychecks for their pride, good benefits and pay, and vision of how their workplace should operate — without the encouragement or protection of a union.

The atmosphere in the stores is strange. At two Market Baskets I visited in New Hampshire, along empty shelves where fruits and vegetables normally lie, workers have used food containers to spell out “ATD.” At a store in Concord, New Hampshire, customers have taped receipts from competitor grocery stores to the doors in a clear and concise articulation of how much money the company is losing.

Workers — who are almost uniformly in support of the boycott — stand chatting with one another, passing the time. There is little work to be done, as there are few customers who are not respecting the workers’ call to stop the company from functioning until their demands are met.

At empty stores across northern New England, one finds among workers a heady mixture of joy, rage, and pride in the actions they are taking. The stores almost have a feeling of reclaimed spaces, where the old rules no longer seem to apply.

Joe Linehan, a mid-level manager at the Tilton store, told me that the workers’ actions are about fighting for respect as much as they are about fighting for a beloved CEO. “We’ve actually gotten a lot closer. We’re out back painting the back room, we’re laughing and joking, we’re having a good time, we’re getting to know each other a little bit better,” he told me. “I’ve had fun, I really have.” Having fun on the shop floor, getting to know one another: atypical, indeed.

Embedded in workers’ demand for the return of the CEO are also demands for the protection of their material conditions of work, like a higher-than-minimum wage, health care, and annual bonuses. Workers I spoke with in New Hampshire and Massachusetts have a well-developed and sophisticated understanding of how a buyout of the company would harm them.

“If they sell this company to a European investor, like they’ve often tried to do, it’ll be a matter of time before we go public, and we’re borrowing money to pay our shareholders, and new people are investing. And there’s also created debt, and we have to pay back that debt,” said Linehan, the manager in Tilton.

Negotiations are currently underway between the two shareholder factions, one side loyal to Arthur T., the other to Arthur S. In the past week, the board members have discussed a possible solution to the crisis. Shareholders loyal to Arthur S. have made a number of offers to keep Arthur T. on board in a newer version of the company, and the competing Hannaford’s supermarket chain has submitted a bid for the company.

Those scenarios have been rejected by Arthur T. — and the workers loyal to him. An offer from Arthur T. to buy 50.5 percent of the company has been rejected by the rival side of the board.

The power dynamics between a post-conflict Market Basket and its workers are still unclear. The boss may think twice about messing with employees, the memory of $10&nsbp;million in daily losses fresh in his or her mind. And workers could take the palpable sense of collective power they have experienced in a more traditional, union-oriented direction.

On the other hand, the reinstated ATD (or his chosen successor) could use workers’ demonstrated loyalty against them by cutting wages and benefits, confident of their unwavering allegiance.

When I asked workers picketing outside the store in Tilton if they would consider forming a union to protect them in future moments like this, the response was a definite “no.” One woman’s response was telling. “This is better than a union,” she said. “And it’s free,” added a worker standing beside her.

For these workers, unions (especially those in the grocery and retail sector), are associated with bureaucracy and defeat. And they’re not entirely wrong.

The Market Basket actions come just over ten years after the five-month United Food and Commercial Workers supermarket strike in Southern California. That strike ended in a two-tiered wage system for workers and defeat for the union. Contemporaneous reports pointed to the UFCW’s decision to withdraw pickets at a crucial moment as a reason for their failure.

None of the Market Basket workers I spoke with in New Hampshire and Massachusetts — neither warehouse workers and truckers on a wildcat strike nor the store employees picketing in solidarity — said they will work for a company that does not meet their demand to reinstate the ousted CEO. I believe them, and management seems to, too.

But in order for the kinds of gains that can be wrought from such actions to be codified, workers need unions, collective bargaining structures, and a voice in the workplace — at all times, not just during monumental shifts in the company structure like the one taking place now.

The UFCW, and American labor more generally, should watch this dispute closely. Workers here have taken the kind of militant action that unions shy away from. This is what unionism at its best can look like. And the militancy demonstrated in New England is resonating. The boycott workers have asked for has spread like wildfire, and some industry analysts have speculated that the company is on the verge of collapse. The governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire have been called in to mediate the dispute between the two factions of the family, in hopes that business will return to normal.

The dispute is also distinctly confrontational in atmosphere. At rallies, on pickets, and through a Facebook page that has exploded in popularity since the conflict began, there is a constant refrain of “no negotiation.” Workers have adopted an all-or-nothing attitude that is as invigorating as it is uncommon, and that would powerfully aid a collective bargaining unit.

That the workers have also managed to convince the wider community of their common interests is also incredible. The boycott has cut business by as much as ninety percent, and an ad-hoc strike fund has raised over $100,000 in the last month. The argument that a loss for workers is a loss for consumers is often made by organized labor but rarely convinces the broader public; at Market Basket, it has.

While not tied to a union, the current Market Basket strike illustrates a point made by Joe Burns in Reviving the Strike. In the book, Burns argues that the key to revivifying the labor movement is renewing the use of the strikes — and specifically strikes that stop production and capital circulation in a given industry, like Flint in 1936-7 and the great strikes of the pre-Wagner Act American labor movement.

For Peter Rachleff, a professor of labor history at Macalester College, there is more than a faint echo of earlier mass strikes. “There’s nothing more exciting than being around people experiencing power collectively,” he said. “You would’ve had that in Flint, in [the 1934 general strike in] St. Paul,” he added. In other words, in the era when labor power was coalescing and was arguably at its apex.

While the National Guard will not be called in to settle the Market Basket dispute like it was in Flint, these workers are living the lessons learned in those years. But the Flint sit-down strikers launched their protest for union recognition, among other demands. So here Market Basket has presented an important question for contemporary labor: What is the union without militant action, and what is militant action without the union to sharpen and direct it?

The larger rallies have centered on a Market Basket parking lot in Tewksbury, Mass., not far from the company’s headquarters and the warehouse where the wildcat is taking place. Tewksbury is three interstate exits south of Lawrence, Mass., where textile workers struck “for bread and roses” —  wages and dignity — a century ago.

Can the benevolent gifts of a good king be roses? Can one respect and support the bravery of a group of workers while hoping they call for something more than the return of their CEO? While the demand of Market Basket employees is indeed for the reinstatement of their benevolent king, the demand is more fundamentally about themselves — about their good pay and holiday bonuses and level of dignity on the shop floor.

One hopes that this action will sow the seeds for more fundamental and structural changes at Market Basket — towards abolishing kings, perhaps. Time will tell. Right now, workers have taken part in angry and joyful acts of collective agency, most for the first time in their lives.

The experience of a month of empty stores, parking lot rallies, and solidarity pickets has changed the way these workers think about themselves and their ability to fight. Their protest is a reminder of just how effective militant job actions can be. From these non-union workers comes the example of the combativeness and confrontation that too many unions have left behind.