Market Basket, Arthur T, and the American Dream

Thousands of angry Market Basket workers have elevated ousted Market CEO Arthur T. Demoulas as close to god-hood as a man can get. More than 5,000 employees turned out to proclaim their loyalty to their former CEO at a Tewksbury rally Monday, double the size of a protest last week.

Arthur T’s firing has provoked a reaction among employees and customers that most Massachusetts unions would be hard-pressed to duplicate. (The Teamsters tried to move in on the action and were promptly rebuffed.) Eight employees went to bat for their ousted chief executive. For their pains, couriers dropped off pink slips at their homes. Arthur T, no fool he, urged the current slate of Market Basket executives to reinstate them.

 

As Boston Globe columnist Steven Syre notes, “Demands to return the chief executive favored by employees are something new.”

What’s Arthur T. got that many businessmen don’t?  Aretha Franklin spells it this way, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Arthur T was “a man that I would run through a wall for, I have no regrets, I would do it all over again,” said Tom Trainor, one of the fired protest organizers.

This being an election year, every politician within two feet of a Market Basket is trying to capitalize on the upheaval. First up was Sen. Barry Finegold, candidate for state treasurer, who recruited more than a dozen other state lawmakers to show their support.

Martha Coakley followed suit, which meant that Charlie Baker had to join the chorus.  New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and her nemesis Scott Brown have also weighed in. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is running for re-election, issued a statement Monday backing the workers. Gov. Deval Patrick, who is not, has yet to say anything about what is arguably the biggest labor protest during his eight years in office.

All of the attendant hoopla obscures a simple fact. Arthur T was something of a dinosaur: a savvy businessman who made sure that his employees shared in the success of the company. By most accounts, Arthur T treated his people right, so right that employees described themselves as family.  

Employees get benefits that workers at a corporation like Walmart can only fantasize about: Annual bonuses, profit sharing, and a shot at management-level jobs. The Boston Business Journal’s George Donnelly describes what made Arthur T.  unique:

Demoulas has cultivated a strict advantage in the market place. The formula boils down to this: investment in employees – Demoulas pays better than average and has built up a retirement fund of over $500 million for employees. Low prices are a byproduct of many factors, chief among them is the company carries no debt and owns many of its locations.

In short, Arthur T gave supermarket employees at shot at the American Dream. Again from the Globe’s Syre: “It’s all about fears that good, middle-class jobs will be threatened by owners who want to squeeze money out of an established, successful business.”

Workers suspect that their piece of it could be destroyed by Arthur S. Demoulas, the cousin now in control of the family business. The new co-CEOs, Jim Gooch and Felicia Thornton, have not covered themselves in glory. Their actions-firings and public statements that clash with passion on display in the streets- are all playing into an evil, corporate overlords narrative.

Market Basket has customer loyalty that many businesses would die for. But the company continues to ramp up a public relations nightmare that has hard-nosed business gurus shaking their collective heads. The Globe tracked down a fair number of public relations and business experts who intoned that nothing good can come of the current standoff.

The feud has already squashed expansion plans in Maine, where Market Basket opened its first store (in Biddeford) to a phenomenal reception last year. Plans for seven more stores in Massachusetts have also been iced.

With pure, unadulterated hatred between the family factions (paging Dr. Phil) at work, a resolution that will please all sides is highly unlikely.  Money talks, but it also walks. As BBJ’s Donnelly concludes, “(Arthur S.) Demoulas should reinstate the fired workers, and listen carefully to what its workforce is ultimately worried about: their futures. Otherwise, Demoulas seems destined to learn the lesson that irrational family behavior will not go unpunished by the market place.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that NH Gov. Maggie Hassan was not running for re-election. Hassan is running for re-election.

GABRIELLE GURLEY

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The recent audit of the Boston Redevelopment Authority reveals how dysfunctional the whole agency is, writes Paul McMorrow.

Cambridge city councilors can’t get any information from the state on the sale of a former jail and courthouse to a private developer.

Governing asks: Are the suburbs all they are cracked up to be?

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

A federal appeals court finds that most Obamacare subsidies are illegal.

ELECTIONS

Elizabeth Warren and Mitt Romney are both being urged to run for president in two years, and both are saying no.

Sen. Charles Schumer calls for an end to partisan primaries in a New York Times op-ed column, calling the change necessary to save democracy from ever-more-extreme polarization.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

More on the Market Basket protests: Shirley Leung seems less sympathetic and had an idea, quickly shot down, that bizarrely involved Michael Dukakis. Greater Boston hears from one of the fired workers.

Aero had only 12,000 subscribers in Boston, and 77,596 overall spread among 12 cities.

HEALTH CARE

The Broad Institute in Cambridge has received a $650 million gift from philanthropist Ted Stanley to fund research into psychiatric illness, the biggest single donation ever made to help understand and potentially better treat mental illness. WBUR’s coverage of the gift is here.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A friend of accused Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted of obstructing the investigation into the attack.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

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