What the Market Basket Struggle Means for Labor

Market Basket employees Rosimeire Farias, of Burlington, Mass., left, and Luz Medina, of Revere, Mass., right, clasp their hands as they watch a televised speech by restored Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, at a supermarket location, in Chelsea, Mass., Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. A six-week standoff between thousands of employees of the New England supermarket chain and management has ended with the news that the beloved former CEO Demoulas is back in control after buying the entire company. Demoulas made the speech to workers in Tewksbury, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Market Basket employees at the Chelsea store clasp their hands as they watch a televised speech by restored Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.
Steven Senne/AP

Labor Day traditions call for celebrating worker struggles of the past that helped produce better working conditions for all. This year we have a bona fide case in our backyard that may just usher in a new era of workplace dynamics that future labor commentators will herald.

Arthur T. Demoulas captured the essence of this modern day struggle in his triumphant speech to his employees when he noted that they view their “workplace as more than just a job.”

Today’s workforce, young and old, executive and front line employees alike, want to identify with the mission of their workplace—whether it is serving customers well and providing value for scarce dollars, improving the quality of care to vulnerable patients, inspiring and educating children to reach their full potential, or creating and producing goods that help sustain the planet. When united in a cause people believe in and experience the pride and material benefits of a job well done, a deep culture of shared ownership inevitably develops. When combined with leaders who reinforce by word and actions the importance of teamwork, compassion when personal or family misfortunes arise, and a willingness to respond to community needs, the power of talented, motivated individuals multiplies into social capital no traditional competitor can match.

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Market Basket demonstrated the power of this type of workplace environment. Working together over generations, employees and managers created and sustained a successful business that worked for owners, employees, customers, vendors, and communities. But when abruptly threatened by a change in leadership to those who did not share a commitment to this culture, all the trust that was built up abruptly was broken. And employees reacted in ways that demonstrated their collective power is a force to be reckoned with.

The broad-based and deep support employees received from customers, community leaders, and the general public tells us that these employees struck a nerve.

One can imagine the public reflected on their own workplaces in taking to the side of Market Basket workers. People who have the good fortune to work in similar workplaces may have chose to avoid the stores in order to stand in solidarity with Market Basket employees, out of understanding and respect for the importance of a high-trust workplace.

And then, even those who lack this type of workplace may have cheered Market Basket workers on in the hope that they would put the fear of God in owners and managers—perhaps even inspiring similar actions to change their own workplaces.

It took more than outrage for Market Basket workers to win. A look at the critical ingredients of success suggests the forms that future workplace protests may very well take. They include creative use of social media (including 90,000 “likes” on the Save Market Basket Facebook page); highly visible rallies with positive messages that attracted and retained media attention, coalitions with loyal customers who saw employees fighting for their interests, and appeals to a public thirsty to find ways to reverse trends in income inequality, unfairness, and greed in economic affairs.

Moreover, their intensive knowledge of what made the business so successful led employees to focus right at the heart of the matter on decisions of the board of directors that typically are well beyond the influence of the workforce. They demonstrated that employees have as big a stake in how a company is run, indeed in who runs the company, as do shareholders.

Time will tell if this fascinating case will be just a flash in the pan or a forerunner of a new worker-led reform of how American businesses compete. The objective conditions are ripe for more actions like this. In the vernacular of social media, perhaps Market Basket will go viral.

Thomas A. Kochan is co-director of the Institute of Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.