WBUR

Market Basket Shows Power Of Organized Labor Without Unions

Protesters celebrate outside Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury last Wednesday night after the grocery chain reached a deal to return control back to Arthur T. Demoulas. (Aram Boghosian for WBUR)

Protesters celebrate outside Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury last Wednesday night after the grocery chain reached a deal to return control back to Arthur T. Demoulas. (Aram Boghosian for WBUR)

BOSTON — As Market Basket workers restock shelves after their astonishing victory last week, Massachusetts labor leaders are taking stock, too.

“Everybody’s been talking,” said Dennis Irvin, of the United Steelworkers Union Local 12012 in Melrose, at Boston’s annual Labor Day Breakfast. “It’s just everywhere, every…you know, Market Basket.”

Market Basket workers should be incredibly proud of what they accomplished, Irvin said. They not only won their chief demand, to bring back their fired CEO, but they also forced the owners to hand over their shares too.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, that’s for sure, and they prevailed, which is even stranger,” Irvin said, shaking his head. “They took on this and forced these people to sell their shares to this one guy. It’s amazing, totally amazing!”

So amazing that Irvin says Market Basket would rank as one of the greatest accomplishments in union history in New England. A history lined with progressive milestones for child labor, the eight-hour workday and safer workplace standards.

But Market Basket isn’t making union history. Its workers are non-union. Many are actually anti-union.

“This company never needed, or ever will need, a union,” said operations supervisor Joe Schmidt outside Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury. “We’re far stronger than that.”

Schmidt helped organize the six-week-long worker protests. He said having a union would have gotten in the way of what workers wanted.

“Just think of it, there’s no union dues or union fees,” Schmidt said. “And look what has been accomplished.”

It’s an astonishing statement to make in Tewksbury, in the same Merrimack River Valley home to some of the greatest moments in Massachusetts labor history. This summer, Market Basket workers walked off the job at a warehouse in Lawrence, the site of the Bread & Roses strike a century ago.

So how did Market Basket workers successfully organize without being unionized? For one, they used the Internet instead of a standing organization with paid staff. Through a website and social media, they rapidly planned rallies and protests.

This also was not a customary strike with workers pitted against management over benefits or working conditions. Instead, managers joined rank-and-file workers in bringing down the company. Without experienced supervisors such as Schmidt to help them, replacement workers brought in by the executive team didn’t really know what to do.

Market Basket meat manager Bob Dietz hugs cashier Mary Olson Thursday in the Chelsea store after watching Arthur T. Demoulas’ speech. (Steven Senne/AP)

Market Basket meat manager Bob Dietz hugs cashier Mary Olson last Thursday in the Chelsea store after watching Arthur T. Demoulas’ speech. (Steven Senne/AP)

There was one other difference: Workers allied with management, who rallied around a lone demand: the return of an executive.

“That is something that is not covered by the National Labor Relations Act,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, who teaches labor relations at Cornell University.

Market Basket workers wrote a new playbook, Bronfenbrenner said. It shows how outdated national labor law is. It also shows the power of managers joining regular workers in collective action, she said. Bronfenbrenner said she expects that combination to become more common across the country.

“These companies are becoming so rich,” she said of corporations. “This discrepancy, this gap, has gotten so bad that even supervisors and managerial employees are saying: ‘We want our fair share too.’”

But under current labor law, managers are not protected the same way rank-and-file workers are. Supervisors can be fired if they walk off the job. That’s what happened to Market Basket supervisors such as Schmidt. But what made him risk his job? He said the grocery store chain is a special case.

“The difference with this company is that it’s a family company,” Schmidt said. “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.”

That’s the kind of solidarity that used to be the hallmark of labor unions.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Argle_Bargle

    Another gem from NPR’s business commissar – can’t waste a chance to dig at organized labor on Labor Day. Stay tuned for Muddying The Waters: How Market Basket LOST!!! and Where Did John Galt Shop? The Market Basket Rebellion Through Ayn Rand’s Eyes.

    What’s missing from this post: the entire public, a worker-eye view of Arthur S., and what Kate Bronfenbrenner really said. She is one of America’s great labor historians, documenting the toxic assault of NAFTA on worker rights and on the front lines of the battle against it’s mutated cousin TPP. Cherry-picking her comments is beneath contempt.

    But the topper is, again, a glaring error from an alleged MBA student: this was a boardroom battle into which line workers and an active, concerned populace voluntarily inserted themselves to powerful effect. That’s also a brief description of a union. But we can’t point that out because it might give people ideas.

  • keltcrusader

    MB employees were solely successful because the customers supported them and stayed away, otherwise, the new management team would have fired them all and replaced them in a blink of an eye. You could tell toward the end, more customers were getting restless, but the financial damage had already been done at that point and when the vendors started to refuse to deliver, that was the breaking point.

    I’m happy it turned out well, but am reminded that it could have easily gone downhill very fast and there is no guarantee other employee actions like this would be successful in our current system of businesses providing shareholders fantastic dividends while screwing the workers over.

    MB may not be a “Union” shop, but they certainly reap the benefits that are similar to unions: good pay, great benefits, and profit-sharing. That was what keeps them from organizing, but they owe a debt of gratitude to unions for those perks. MB wanted to keep unions out and they did so by providing employees with union-like benefits.

  • downtown21

    The ruling class would love us to believe that Market Basket proves unions are outdated. But that would be insane.

    Imagine how much easier it would have been for the workers if they had a strike fund. Without a strike fund it takes so little for people to start crossing picket lines. And there really is something to be said for having a professional running things, someone who knows about ORGANIZING and how to rally the crowd, to say nothing of NEGOTIATING. Negotiating never came into play because they’re happy with how much Artie T pays them. Another group of workers at another employer that’s fighting for higher pay might need to demand a collective bargaining agreement. You can’t have some amateur that’s leading protests with a Twitter account handling that. Yes, when you have a professional labor leader running your union it costs money, they have a salary. But you get what you pay for. It’s not like the CEO of any company isn’t hiring lawyers and negotiators to represent his interests, why shouldn’t employees do the same?

    And one thing that worked out in the workers’ favor was that this is a RETAIL operation with loyal customers. Waiting out the strikers until they were broke and desperate wasn’t really an option because the customers wouldn’t have come back. In other circumstances, the employer can smash a work action without having to worry about customers punishing them for it. Without a union backing you up, you’re finished.

    • PaulD

      You leave out the fact that ALL of the management, minus the co-CEOs, were leading the fight. The rank-and-file workers were, effectively, along for the ride. This was really about the senior management at the stores and distribution centers having a mutiny against CEOs and majority share holders and those senior managers acted in the same way union management would if they existed here.

      This isn’t a useful example of how traditional “organized labor” is good or bad. It’s an example of how good management leads to loyal employees and customers and how a good long term business strategy leads to a sustainable business.

      • Argle_Bargle

        Without the rank and file, both workers and the public in general, there would have been no battle at Market Basket. Management, including squishy middle managers who are gold medalists in self-delusion, could easily have been replaced; it happens all the time in proxy wars and buyouts and no one raises an eyebrow.

        @Gambone and serial offender @PaulD front the traditional tactics of those who hate workers and community and will try anything to dilute the impact of a risky, hard-won victory. They earn high marks for clueless romantic myths about individualism, but on closer examination it’s a laugh.

        @downtown21 is 100% accurate about unions always being important. When union membership is high, non-union shops ride the coattails of upward pressure on wages and working conditions. When it’s low, unions set the example of what workers can achieve. Market Basket was an important case of non-union workers using effective union tactics. It’s not the first time nor is it the last.

        • PaulD

          LOL.

          Yes, this case was successful solely because of the baggers and cashiers.

          LOL

          Good luck finding 70 people in New England capable of running a full sized grocery store within a month or so.

          • Argle_Bargle

            A childlike attempt at misdirection away from the bulk of the Market Basket army. I would re-direct you to Arthur T’s victory speech, which prominently featured line workers and customers, but why burden yourself with the truth?

            Wait…did you actually write “good luck finding 70 people” while America slogs through the Great Swamp Of Huge Unemployment? Misinformed is one thing, but that’s certifiable.

            Whether about the 2nd Amendment or the workplace, your compulsive blind spot on class makes you post the least-defensible outbursts. It’s as fascinating as the Ebola outbreak.

          • PaulD

            I’m not surprised you quoted out of context. Par for the course.

          • Argle_Bargle

            Out of context? That’s what hypocrites, racists, and middle management dunces claim when caught looking like one. These days, one could find several hundred qualified candidates for even for fairly rarefied positions. That’s why the Market Basket battle so dramatically relied on average people, both employees and customers.

            Here’s another quote: you’re 0-2 when debating someone who didn’t just arrive from across the Ocean of Stupid. Maybe you should start over in A ball, or just run for Congress. You can count on my nope.

          • PaulD

            And now the ad homonyms come out.

            Yes, out of context. I said good luck finding 70 qualified people and now you’re saying that’s racist. Makes perfect sense.

          • Argle_Bargle

            Actually it was middle management dunce (comedy, rule of threes, etc) but have it your way. And shame on me. Making a lurid analogy about denial was cover for even more misdirection. But it was fun. One more: here’s Obama destroying the economy:

            https://twitter.com/robdelaney/status/507960097390485504/photo/1

          • Stephen Gambone

            I just read this Gargle Bargle stuff and it’s a hoot. Just like in your case the Oxford MB folks know I don’t hate them. I was the first person manning the signs on one blazing sunny August day.

            Reality isn’t bargle’s strong suit.

    • Stephen Gambone

      You’re not even close on your assessment.

      Not being a union gave the MB folks a huge tactical advantage They didn’t make full use of that advantage and still managed to trounce their opposition.

      When non-professionals are in charge they can think outside the box.

      Any group of committed workers could duplicate the MB victory, retail or not.

      • downtown21

        You’re not fooling anybody, or at the very least you’re not fooling me. You’re NOT a friend to labor, that is clear.

        • PaulD

          But is he wrong?

          Unions may be necessary sometimes, but introducing another organization into a relationship means that 3rd organization needs to have some net gain and that comes at the expense of at least one of the first two. Think of a what happens to a divorce proceeding when lawyers get involved.

          The MB employees had stated they didn’t want to unionize because they were treated well. That’s the ideal.

          • downtown21

            Well DUH, if employees are treated well, then obviously they don’t need a union.

            So when all employers start treating their workers well, Stephen will finally be right. Until then, the need for unions will still be here and the appalling state of low skilled workers that aren’t unionized is the proof. Millions of Americans work full time and yet are still dirt poor, and all of them are unorganized. The labor-productivity gap has been growing steadily since the late 70s, after unions were smashed and Reagan declared war on organized labor when he fired the air traffic controllers.

          • PaulD

            Once again, was Stephen Gambone wrong with regards to the situation he mentioned (MB)?

          • downtown21

            Yes, he was. I thought I made that clear. What part of it did you not understand?

            His whole argument rests on middle management siding with the rank-and-file. And since that rarely happens, he’s wrong to insist the rank-and-file don’t need unions. Get it?

          • PaulD

            His whole argument doesn’t necessarily rest on middle management siding with workers. If all the rank and file workers act in unison and walk out of a company, they have power. Period. Few if any will do it but it has happened previously. In particular, I’ve seen it happen at software companies. Is it rare? Yes, but not unheard of. Would a formal union make it easier and more likely? Probably, but at a cost.

          • downtown21

            And and you’re also wrong with the way you characterize professional union organizers and administrators as being like a divorce attorney.

          • PaulD

            They’re overhead, period.

          • downtown21

            Incorrect. If what you gain by hiring them is greater than what it costs to pay them, then you’re completely wrong. Do you feel the same way about financial advisers? I mean, I could manage the stock portfolio of my retirement account all by myself, but I don’t have the expertise for that and I don’t have the time to gain that expertise. It’s a full time job, and I already have a full time job. So instead I buy mutual funds and pay a fee to the person managing them. If I did it all myself I’d save money on the fee, but I’d probably lose much, much more in earning potential on my investments. What I would have lost by cutting “overhead” is much more than what I gained from it. Divorce lawyers bicker about how to divide a finite amount of assets, which isn’t anything at all like union representatives engaging in collective bargaining.

            In any case, since in large organizations it’s extremely rare for the CEO to “go it alone” when dealing with labor and they almost always employ their own army of lawyers and consultants, it’s patently absurd to suggest that the workers can get the best deal possible fending for themselves unless they just happen to be lucky enough to have a CEO that’s a benevolent dictator like Artie T…and since we both know how extremely rare a CEO like that is, I think this debate is kind of a waste of time. I truly believe you really do know better than this position you’ve staked out for yourself.

          • PaulD

            And my position is pretty clear.

            In the case of MB, no union involvement most likely helped their cause and MB isn’t really a useful example of whether unions are or are not needed in other cases.

            Further, if unions can be avoided (i.e. owners and employees are both happy), that’s the ideal situation as unions *are* overhead in the same way a financial advisor is (if you can do something yourself competently, you save money). There are other examples of this including Costco and SWA.

          • downtown21

            And once again I’ll point out that when those examples start being the norm instead of the exception, workers won’t need unions any more. Since they obviously ARE the exception, always have been, and probably always will be, this whole discussion STILL feels like a waste of time to me. You can keep talking about how things should be in a perfect world, I’ll focus on how things ARE in this world. Good day.

          • PaulD

            And you’ll continue to mis-use this event as supporting a cause which it doesn’t support.

        • Stephen Gambone

          There isn’t any point in my trying to fool you when you are too good at fooling yourself.

          The union folks are in awe of what the non-union MB folks did because the rules of the “management vs. union game” prevent any union from winning in this sort of battle.

          It wasn’t a strike in any standard sense, the press keeps getting that wrong.

          PaulD’s mutiny idea is far more accurate.

          Key leaders mutinied, customers went on strike and the rank and file MB workers put their financial lives on the line for the sake of customers, vendors, 12 fired people and the mutineers.

          Putting it into union-speak and calling it ‘solidarity’ gets it wrong.

          People stood “United”… big difference.

          • downtown21

            Great, so when middle management sides with the rank-and-file the rank-and-file can win without a union.

            And you’d have us believe that means unions are outdated? Please. How often does middle management side with the rank-and-file?

          • Stephen Gambone

            Ok. downtown. When I was defending the MB folks during the battle people were calling me an Obama loving, union supporting, left wing communist. I’m still in battle mode a bit so let me try to dial it back a notch.

            You’re correct when you say the MB victory does not mean unions are no longer necessary. The MB win gives people another option, it doesn’t eliminate other options.

            The reason the MB folks didn’t and don’t need a union is that they are a family unit; a really, really big American family unit. So there’s no point in them having a union and standing in union solidarity because they are already united as one in a shared American belief system.

            There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding this MB thing. Less than 1% of the MB workforce was on “strike” and the word ‘strike’ doesn’t fit the situation.

            If unions want to learn things from the MB example they need to see it as it was and figure out the tactical advantages the MB folks had that unions don’t usually have.

            The MB folks had the equivalent of a strike fund i.e. unemployment insurance. That fact alone is a huge tactical advantage over the typical union strike situation. A strike fund is drained by a strike. Getting unemployment forces the employer to come up with some of the benefits.

            That was a big plus in the battle. It put the MB board in the position of having to pay workers for the work slowdown. The MB folks were also protected by the WARN act.

  • nickj123

    The customers won the day. You can’t have management deny customers what they want, not just great prices – but a corporate ethos in which everyone gains – management, customer and employee alike. – without being against the basic principles of the free market.

  • nickj123

    It could work anywhere – McDonalds – strike coupled with a boycott – would bring the chain to it’s knees – go to Burger King for a while – after McDonald’s changes then do the same to Burger King – and on and on it goes.

    The consumer could demand higher wages in this fashion

  • TwoNs

    More often than not, CEOs have their job because of their ego, personality and prestige they bring fron their last job. What they do, or do not know is irrelevant.

Most Popular