All in the Family

The Market Basket strike had conservative aims. But leftists can learn from the solidarity it inspired.

Russell Lee / Library of Congress

The wolves are at the door,” Steve Paulenka said to the crowd, introducing the next speaker. “They came for ATD — and they are coming for you.” The night before, Paulenka, a facilities and operations supervisor with over forty years of experience at Market Basket supermarkets, had been notified by courier letter that he no longer had a job.

A privately held company founded and owned for decades by the Demoulas family, Market Basket is the sole reason Walmart has been unable to gain a foothold in New England. When CEO Arthur T. Demoulas (known affectionately as ATD or Artie T.) was ousted in June by a board controlled by his rival cousins, it was the long-expected culmination to a feud at the heart of the chain’s ownership.

By mid-July, loyal top executives at headquarters and in the warehouse began a company-wide rebellion, which led to their summary termination. They went on to marshal the collective force of 25,000 workers to shut down the entire company — and win.

Buyers in the office refused to place orders. Warehouse workers refused to load trucks. Truckers refused to deliver loads. Store workers refused to offload the trailers that arrived. The strikers enjoyed public support so massive that a consumer boycott cut the popular regional chain’s sales to almost zero.

Local lawmakers — thirty in Massachusetts alone — proudly declared their support, echoing the strikers’ principal demand: reinstate Artie T. Ultimately, the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire even helped secure the final settlement.

When it came to this year’s Market Basket strike, workers, managers, and billionaires came bundled in a single package — the leftist, it seemed, could either support them all or oppose them all. If the liberal, encountering a major contradiction, enjoys the ability to either shrug and declare that it’s better than the alternative or concoct a reason why it’s not really a contradiction, the socialist must either grapple with the question or apply the blunt instrument of theoretical doctrine. Either way invites difficulty here.

In an interview with Boston NPR affiliate WBUR, fired operations supervisor Joe Schmidt unwittingly articulated why the strike made leftists so uncomfortable:

This company never needed, or will ever need, a union. We’re far stronger than that. . . It’s a family company, and the people aren’t only co-workers, they’re also family members. So, to be able to duplicate this in the modern business world, I think it would be very difficult to find people as dedicated and loyal to a particular company as the people in this company, and I think that’s the point.

Was all this talk of family just a cheap but cunning rhetorical trick? If leftists are correct to critique the bourgeois aims of what was a management-led strike in fact (if not always in spirit), we must not be so quick to dismiss the effective power of its rhetorical tactics. While unions and socialists post no immediate gains from this kind of anti-labor love story, the strike still holds lessons.

Many leftists claim that we just need to patiently and tirelessly explain economic reality to workers, that uncritically supporting a pro-boss strike is beyond the pale. I agree. But just as the Left would do well to take Corey Robin’s suggestion and “reclaim the politics of freedom,” perhaps we might also learn to reclaim the best aspects of the politics of family and community.

Capturing even a fraction of the solidarity and public support displayed throughout the strike would be a desperately needed shot of epinephrine in an ailing labor movement.

With scarcely a cloud dotting the sky and temperatures hovering around 75 degrees, the weather seemed to smile upon the roughly 3,000 Market Basket workers cheering and holding signs at a July 21 rally. They had come from all over eastern New England, representing all of the chain’s seventy-one stores as well as its warehousing, procurement, and transportation divisions.

“Yesterday, I was fired,” distribution supervisor Tom Trainor told the crowd. “Today I’m fired up. I am Market Basket, and I will always be Market Basket.” He then reminded the assembled of the historic nature of the collective action. “The eyes of businesses across the country are on us. . . We have two million dedicated customers who’ve got our back. We have 25,000 associates against five directors and two incompetent CEOs. Really?. . . We are not normal. We’re not going back to work. We’re gonna shut this company down.”

So they did. But animating Paulenka and Trainor’s borderline-radical rhetoric was a conservative spirit: This uprising was only about one thing, and only had one demand — the restoration of the CEO.

In many ways, the victory can be attributed to the adoption of that singular, focused aim — an aim easily shared by managers, consumers, politicians, and even workers. This is insufficient, however, in explaining why ordinary retail workers were enlivened by a movement so hostile to the unions that stand, theoretically at least, to further their interests.

Recognizing that workers can ultimately gain little without unionizing does not, however, make the actions of Market Basket employees irrational. Much has been made of the fact that full-time hourly workers at Market Basket are paid slightly above the industry average, given multiple profit-sharing bonuses every year, and provided with medical benefits known to be cheaper and more comprehensive than the norm.

Though they aren’t provided with a pension per se, Market Basket workers have a retirement plan that includes employer contributions. Following the financial crisis, Artie T. even unilaterally ordered that nearly $50 million in company profits be used to replenish the retirement coffers, an action that directly contributed to his ouster.

It would be blind folly to ignore the real benefits that workers have enjoyed under Artie T.’s leadership. For a working class that has grown accustomed austerity, Market Basket exceeded expectations — and workers had no reason to think a union could secure anything comparable.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represents employees at Stop and Shop, Market Basket’s regional competitor. Yet there is no evidence that workers there actually earn more than their counterparts at Market Basket. When contract disputes led to strike votes in 2010 and again in 2013, the issues debated seemed as mundane as the results. In fact, in 2010, the UFCW engaged in a social media campaign very similar to Market Basket’s. Hardly anyone noticed.

That Market Basket is actually family-owned, in contrast to Stop and Shop   which is controlled by a publicly traded Dutch grocery giant   is perhaps where the cultural distinctions begin. Massachusetts is not Tennessee, and the family vibe at Market Basket is not as stubbornly macho or calculatingly corporate as southern auto plants. But there are substantial parallels with the cultivated sense of team loyalty and company allegiance found there. There’s no denying that this is a management-driven and management-benefitting strategy. It also happens to work very, very well.

Longtime Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi takes this a step further. There’s a desire among the broader public, she writes, “to believe in one corporate leader putting the well-being of his workers over shareholders, in an old-fashioned It’s A Wonderful Life way.”

The classic film is an apt cultural reference, and not only because male workers wear shirts and ties and adhere to Steinbrenner-style rules on facial hair and hair length. Despite the role played here by dollars-and-cents concerns, the chain’s “family culture” may well have been the decisive factor in the strike’s victory. A quick scan of any of the bigger Market Basket Facebook pages — Save Artie T. and Market Basket! and Artie T. Supporters Unite!, for example — reveals anecdote after anecdote of Artie T. himself reaching out to the lowest-level employee in a time of crisis, calling to say hello, shaking hands, and issuing personal thank yous.

Having worked as a low-level, part-time clerk at three different northeastern grocery chains, including six months at Market Basket earlier this year, I’ve seen the unusual influences at play. There’s a reason Market Basket employees’ name badges are boldly emblazoned with their years of service; never before in retail or any other hourly job have I encountered so many non-management employees who have worked at the same company for twenty, twenty-five, even thirty years. It’s more difficult to rage against the machine when all the bosses started as part-time clerks.

It’s common for coworkers to begin working together in high school and simply never quit. Frequently, multiple generations from the same family work at the same store. The culture of family solidarity isn’t just manufactured by a cunning CEO and management; it’s something workers can see.

Coworkers enjoy an almost tribal sense of solidarity, unquestioningly raising funds for fellow associates who’ve lost loved ones or experienced a house fire. Managers are broadly accommodating toward changing college schedules, second jobs, and other personal obligations.

Call it bourgeois all you want, but it’s straight out of Capra.

Most notable is the power of narrative,” Vennocci writes. “Market Basket workers used social media as an organizing tool, but, at the same time, they skillfully used old and new media to tell their story before the other side knew what was happening.”

What story do we want to tell? Making the case for a leftist politics of freedom, Corey Robin writes:

The politics of freedom is a politics of individual and collective emancipation. Frederick Douglass discovered his freedom, negative and positive, when he raised his hand against his overseer. After that, he realized, though he might remain a “slave in form,” he would never again be a “slave in fact.” The politics of freedom similarly understands liberty as, above all, a claim against — and a movement to overcome — oppressive forms of power, particularly in the private spheres of the workplace and the family.

If liberty is to be seen as a claim against all oppressive power, family values can in tern be framed as those which promote the growth, strengthening, and liberty of the family and its members. Substantive gains in the workplace secure more free time at home and with family, for those inclined to do so. Safer conditions and tightly limited workloads reduce both injury and stress, keeping loved ones healthy and intact. Applied more broadly, leftist gains mean not only increased job security, but other social protections.

A universal basic income, reducing dependence on work itself, would make it easier for family members to remain in close proximity. Free public childcare would offer families scheduling flexibility. Free public spaces and institutions would provide working families with greater leisure time, education, and entertainment. Working together to care for our peers, neighbors, and kin, working to ensure a home for all, food for all, clothes for all, health for all — each of these should be framed as family at its best, extended to all of society.

Leftists may know that relying on the noblesse oblige of a billionaire is no sustainable model for Market Basket workers specifically or the working class generally, but we’re not the ones we need to convince. In order to reach people neither particularly inclined nor endowed with sufficient time to consider objective economic conditions and the benefits of collective bargaining (if not collective ownership of the means of production), our “patient explanation” has got to involve more than expounding on why they’re not seeing the whole picture.

When objective economic conditions leave everyone painfully aware, in the words of Steve Paulenka, that “the wolves are at the door,” and when workers are still not persuaded of the value in class-based mobilization, it indicates a problem rooted not in worker consciousness but in leftist communication.

If patient explanation and worker education are the correct impulses, we’re executing them poorly. If nothing else, there’s a cultural language leftists must speak in order to comprehensively address the concerns of working people and stand together against exploitation.

Artie T. is able to convince the rank-and-file that they’re a part of his family by hearing and recognizing all of them as valued people. Until unions and the Left can do the same, we will never replicate his success.