Let’s be absolutely clear about something: what happened with Market Basket this summer was a union action.
There are already people trying to peddle the idea that the supermarket chain’s toppling of its board of directors and restoration of Arthur T. Demoulas just goes to show what you can do without a union. Here’s the problem with that theory: the employees for all intents and purposes were a union. Even non-union employees have the right to “self-organization” under the law and can pretty much do what union employees do to protect their mutual best interests.
So everyone who went to Shaw’s and Stop and Shop the last six weeks or so, everyone who honked a horn as they passed a Market Basket employee carrying a sign, everyone who cheered the return of Artie T. (and if there was someone who opposed them and supported the board of directors, the comments section of this blog is right there waiting for you) – all of you—supported a union. Every last one of you supported an act of organized labor.
How do you feel about what you did now?
You can’t take it back. You’re on record. You supported the right of workers to come together for their mutual interests. It really happened. And here’s what for so many of you will be the worst part: it was the right thing to do and you know it.
It would be great if you stuck around but I don’t see that happening. Unions have been evil for a while now. They’ve sapped our global competitiveness by insisting on wages and conditions somewhat better than the average Bangledeshi deathtrap. They come this close to ruining our commutes. They’ve completely ruined baseball by letting players choose where they play and for whatever salary the market will bear. God knows they’ve been single-handedly responsible for every failure of the education system. They represent a woefully small percentage of workers in this country and we all seem to be fine with that.
Let’s face it. Most Americans find unions anywhere from obsolete to sinister and subversive.
So what was different this time? Just that there wasn’t an official union running the show? I’m afraid it isn’t quite so simple.
For openers the workers received overwhelming support because the Market Basket board of directors were so overwhelmingly wrong. The ousting of Arthur T. Demoulas and everything it brought with it—the threat of lower wages, fewer benefits, and higher prices for customers—was a bald-faced act of avarice that zoomed right past the line between merely cold-blooded and aggressively cruel. When you fire a blood relative who is beloved by his employees for taking care of them on their paychecks and in person, when your response to the anger of those employees is to start holding job fairs to replace them, you shouldn’t really be shocked when as a result a whole lot of people decide you’re a bunch of mean-spirited greedy lowlifes. The organizers of the Market Basket workers’ activism did a thorough job of portraying the BOD as flat evil but the BOD couldn’t have made that easier if they had released a picture of Arthur S. Demoulas in a black hooded robe zapping Steve Paulenka with Force lightning. Choosing sides here was made easier than it typically is.
It also didn’t help that this hit people right in the kitchen which is tantamount to hitting them in the wallet. The Market Basket crisis was making a very clear and significant difference in the lives of New Englanders, a difference that could be seen in a receipt from Stop and Shop that recorded an extra fifty bucks for the same amount of groceries from Market Basket. Market Basket has been portrayed as the go-to supermarket of the low-income consumer. What a truly clueless and out-of-touch assessment. Since when has anyone not actively sought out paying less for something? More to the point, it’s 2014 in the United States of America. This is an era that has given us everything from the Occupy movement to The Hunger Games. The vast majority of us are trying to save every last penny we can. We all need a Market Basket right now. If you don’t, by all means jump on the comments section and tell me what it’s like to be independently wealthy.
The factor of income inequality figures greatly here, beyond the positive need in this day and age for every kind of break ordinary Americans can catch to make ends meet. It also informs the bitterness and antipathy employees and customers alike felt for the Market Basket board of directors. Even if you were someone who had never supported an organized job action before, you might be someone who saw what was happening at Market Basket as a chance to stick it to a bunch of billionaires, to put a bunch of fat plutocrats out of work and see how they like it. As AIG and Morgan Stanley did to us, so shall we do unto you.
And so an overwhelming majority of people supported an organized labor movement. Even though it was costly and inconvenient. And yet an overwhelming majority of people in this country can sum up their opinion of organized labor with anything from an “organized labor—is that still around?” to a “they’re all a bunch of lazy Communists.”
They’re going to be analyzing this one at business schools and in management classes for a long time. So here’s some analysis of the Market Basket saga for Labor Day for all of us: rethink.
If you were part of the customer boycott and supported the employees in any way, ask yourself if you would have done it if the boycott and the work stoppage were organized by a union. If the answer is no, maybe you need change your opinion of unions because what the Market Basket workers did was effectively a union action.
If you think that the Market Basket employees had every right to all but cripple a multi-billion dollar business to prevent the onset of what they considered to be intolerably unfair changes in their working conditions, even if it might have caused you some inconvenience and hardship, go back and look at events in Wisconsin, Chicago, Long Island, and fast food restaurants all over the country the last few years. Were you there for those workers, supporting their right to organize for better pay, better benefits, better working conditions? Obviously those situations were not identical to one another or to the situation with Market Basket. But what they all have in common were employees banding together to effect positive change for themselves and their fellow employees. Were you calling them heroes at Market Basket for exercising their rights but selfish anarchists everywhere else when those same rights were exercised?
If you saw Arthur S. Demoulas and his cronies as demons from the pit, where was your vitriol previously? Scott Walker is still the governor of Wisconsin. Rahm Emmanuel is still mayor of Chicago. Donald Thompson and Dan Schwartz and their ilk are in no danger of losing their lucrative gigs. There’s a whole lot of righteous liberal fury out there directed at executives making roughly 927,000 times what they pay their workers. Yet whisper the word “union” and all the zealotry evaporates. If it didn’t, unions wouldn’t be the anathema they are today.
Organized labor did a lot of that anathema-making to itself. Corruption, infiltration by organized crime, mismanagement, poorly communicating its message. It’s not a perfect movement. No such movement exists. But what you saw happen at Market Basket was in many ways organized labor at its best. It’s at its best more than you think and not at its worst nearly as much you think. In a time unions are seldom found and left with so little support, when only those willfully ignoring it don’t see at least some evidence of a yawning gap between rich and poor, when everything costs more and almost none of us are making enough to keep up, when we just saw what a unified and passionate group of workers can do here in New England, rethink and ask yourself:
What exactly is supposed to be so bad about unions?
Happy Labor Day to us all.