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labor When a Strike is a Strike: The Saga of Market Basket in New England

Market Basket workers don’t have a union. But they achieved in three weeks what few unions have accomplished in recent years: They stood up to their multibillion-dollar employer, won local and national sympathy for their struggle, and stayed united. Boston Globe 8/12/14

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What has been big regional news for four weeks is breaking into the national consciousness with extensive coverage in the New York Times, NPR and the Today Show.

It is the story of the fight for Market Basket/Demoulas supermarkets in Maine, New Hampshire and Eastern Massachusetts. The employees are on strike and are waging a colorful and creative community-based struggle to keep their CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Arthur T. was thrown out by the Market Basket Board of Directors in June. The coup against Arthur T. was led by his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas. The forced exit of Arthur T. is the culmination of a long family struggle for control of the three generational family business founded by Grandfather Demoulas in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Truck drivers, warehouse workers, deli counter attendants, top level managers, checkers etc. are all on strike and have been for four weeks. The 71 stores are empty of all but dry goods, and even though the stores are open they are empty of customers who are loyal to Demoulas (This was the name of the market when I was growing up in Massachusetts!) because of the low prices and the customer service. My mother is one of those customers who are not shopping at Demoulas in solidarity with the strike. Customers are taping their receipts of money spent at other markets on the windows of the empty DeMoulas stores.

This is one of the most sweeping and captivating labor struggles in the private sector in years. There is no union and the employees are striking and protesting, at one rally 25,000 strong, for the return of their CEO Arthur T. False consciousness, confused workers bamboozled by their CEO and mangers, many of whom are also on strike? NOT! Demoulas workers are loyal because they can read the handwriting on the Wall Street wall. The new board is about cutting costs, squeezing assets and raising profitability on the backs of the employees. The employees correctly foresee a Bain Capital takeover ala the Mittster.

Long time Boston-based advocate for worker ownership and decision making, Chris Mackin, commented in a recent TV interview that the workers are specifically “challenging the business model” being proposed by the Market Basket board.

The outcome remains uncertain, but the power of 25,000 workers in motion and united with their customer and community supporters should not be lost on labor organizers. It is refreshing to see a real S-T-R-I-K-E in retail that paralyses production and commerce with the support of the customer community. I showed a video of a news clip of the Market Basket struggle to a training for union bus drivers and the reaction was surprising to me. I expected the reaction to dote on the fact that the workers were without a union and misguided in supporting their boss. Instead the participants in the training took inspiration in the passion, creativity of the workers and their close ties with their customer base. It was a great lead in for a healthy discussion of building a driver-rider alliance.

Strikes require deep roots and ties with the work force and their issues to be effective. In retail, there needs to be a solid alliance with the community customer base to be successful. Organizers taking on industry giants like Wal-Mart or organizing fast food workers at McDonalds would be well advised to study the lessons of Market Basket.

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California.

Links to checkout:
Minor league team wades into Market Basket fight

We are Market Basket

What the Heck Is Happening at Market Basket?