If you don’t live in New England, you undoubtedly missed out on the story of the summer for regional news outlets: the Market Basket saga of 2014. Whether “Greek tragedy” or “war of attrition” is overblown to describe the corporate troubles of a regional supermarket chain depends on your perspective. It’s a great story to make fun of, but it also offers some takeaways that people in other regions might find interesting but would have no reason to know about.
Market Basket is a cheap regional grocery store with some fanatic devotees. For many years the chain has been owned by the Demoulas family, which has struggled behind (and in front of) the scenes to wrestle control of the store from one another. The antagonists in this particular saga are cousins Arthur T. Demoulas and Arthur S. Demoulas, AKA Artie T. and Artie S (for full comic and dramatic effect one should read this in a Boston accent, IE, AH-tee).
Artie T. was pushed out by his cousin in June from his role as CEO of the stores. During his time as CEO, Artie T. had built up a substantial following for his penchant for personal relationships with employees (remembering names, attending birthdays or funerals) and more generous benefits, wages, and opportunities for advancement than other supermarkets.
Soon after the news of Artie T.’s firing broke, truck suppliers struck, Market Basket workers took up protests outside their workplaces, and supporters of all stripes enforced a customer boycott of Market Basket stores. The media picked up on the story enthusiastically during a slow news summer and a lackluster Governor’s campaign, playing out each testy meeting of the Demoulas family and reporting the newest reports of lost earnings like juicy celebrity gossip. After about 6 weeks of protests, the Arties agreed on a sale allowing T. to come back as CEO, buying the company from the rival faction.
Unless you just love the bizarre drama of the story (I can pretend to be above it, but there’s some pretty good lore – like apparent fistfights, switched allegiances, and surveillance wires) it has a couple interesting takeaways.
The first is the role of personality and likeability in corporate governance. There have been debates about how much one can generalize from the outcome of the MB saga, but one thing is for sure: there was a fanatic devotion to Artie T.’s controlling role. In an age where most people working for large companies have no idea who works two steps above them, a vast majority of employees had enough familiarity with their corporate executive to put their jobs on the line for him. The demise of the protests were predicted many times over the course of the strike, but the protesters got essentially everything they wanted – Artie T’s reinstatement. Beyond their belief in the leadership style of their old boss, they have no reason to expect personal gain.
It’s surely not a straightforward morality tale, but it’s hard not to side with the workers, especially when some columnists so helpfully fulfill the role of Ebenezer Scrooge by insisting that the protesters “go back to work” and that companies do not “have to dance to mob rule”. To me, it’s a small sign that workers are not entirely powerless to improve their work environment, even if it was ultimately a symbolic issue.
Second, the entire affair was orchestrated by non-unionized labor. In a world of dwindling union membership and resources, the protests could be seen as a hopeful note for labor or a depressing death blow, depending on your perspective. This Globe article even raises the possibility that the very non-unionized nature of the workforce may have created greater possibility for success: managers and low-level workers could all work together to achieve their goals. In unionized workforces, managers and workers are usually prohibited from taking labor action together. The downside is that unions can help workers hang together during a strike, for example by helping pay a fraction of their paychecks.
If anyone – for or against unions – is predicting that this heralds a new age for labor, I don’t think they’ve thought this one through clearly. Certainly if Market Basket had been a national chain in the McDonald’s or Walmart model rather than a family owned company, the protesters would be begging to go back to work now – the deep pockets and diffuse governance structures of multinational corporations would probably make a protest untenable on the national level.
If you choose to see a morality play at work you can. I think there are more interesting questions to answer. Is the changing structure of the economy closing down the possibility of another Market Basket? How and why did employees (and shoppers) attach to the good Artie vs. evil Artie narrative so easily? Could other CEOs or workers’ rights advocates use this to their advantage, or is Market Basket is a unique case in a unique area? Whether this could even happen in a place with a less than religious zeal for its grocery chains is an open question. You’d better believe, though, that the saga of Arties T and S will be the talk of New England business school seminars in the years to come.