For the past three days, Wayne Ross has been lingering outside the Market Basket grocery store in Chelsea, Massachusetts, clipboard in hand. No one gets past without hearing his request. He wants their names on his petition.
“I’ve been putting in twelve-hour days,” said Ross, who is fifty-five years old and lives in neighboring Revere. He claimed to have a thousand signatures by 2:45 p.m., on top of 1,500 the day before.
Ross wants, in his own words, to “save Market Basket,” a chain of grocers operating in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Looking at the numbers, the century-old, family-owned company doesn’t sound like it’s in peril: seventy-one shops and growing, 25,000 employees, annual revenues approaching $5 billion.
But these past two weeks, employees have been walking off the job. Workers, protesting at storefronts, implore customers to boycott the company that pays their wages. Trucks slumber in warehouse lots, and store shelves look as though emptied in anticipation of a Nor’easter.
What the employees, united but not unionized, want has little to do with pay, benefits, or working conditions, at least on its face. What they want is their old boss, Arthur T. Demoulas, back. Arthur T. was recently ejected from his role as CEO by shareholders aligned with his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. The two Arthurs have feuded for decades thanks to Arthur T.’s father, who pilfered company shares from his brother’s side of the family. In 1994 a judge restored the lost shares, vesting majority ownership with Arthur S.’s faction, but only in June was he able to push his cousin from the throne.
Granting that Arthur S. was legally wronged, Arthur T.'s tenure in command was good for business. Market Basket thrived, expanding until its presence could be felt virtually everywhere in Eastern Massachusetts. In the process, Arthur T. cultivated exceptional loyalty in his employees. And now those employees are putting it on display. Recalling Arthur S.’s 2013 demand for a $1.5 billion payout to shareholders, workers fear that there is nothing to prevent the new leadership from raiding the treasury at the expense of themselves and the stores in which they appear to take great pride. Thousands have showed up to rallies at the corporate offices. And at the Chelsea store, dozens, nearly everyone Latino, held banners and shouted slogans, mostly in Spanish.
“I’m in awe of all this,” said Chelsea resident Joan Smith, as she left the store with a single, light plastic bag.
Yet, as remarkable as the employee reaction has been, the customer response is even more extraordinary. To shoppers, Market Basket is not just another big box with a blank face. Unlike many grocers that cater to specific demographics, Market Basket is as indispensable in working-class towns, such as Revere and Chelsea, as it is in gentrifying and well-off neighborhoods.
James, a tall Vietnam veteran in a baseball cap and sunglasses, has been protesting along with the employees. He declined to give his last name but had no qualms about sharing his reasons for supporting the revolt.
He praised Market Basket’s low prices and high-quality goods and clearly felt a sense of responsibility for the company’s future. “If I can give back with my heart,” he said, “I will.” Hard lessons inspired the first-time protester. “When we came back, we had no support” he said, pointing to a hat describing him as a Vietnam veteran. “I remember what that was like.”
The welfare of employees was also on Laura Fernandez’s mind as she entered the store. Fernandez, a twenty-seven-year-old Chelsea resident who speaks with a heavy accent, called the new management “scary.” Though she was unsure what changes might come, she applauded the previous management for its hiring practices. “They don’t discriminate by color or age or race,” she said. In her opinion, this differentiated Market Basket from other low-cost retailers. Ross, too, noted Market Basket’s penchant for hiring “people who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere.”
Diversity extends to shoppers as well. “It’s like the United Nations of supermarkets,” James said. “You can find anyone in there. People with money, people without money.” Virtually everyone interviewed agreed that Market Basket is especially affordable but doesn’t skimp on products in order to make ends meet. “Other stores, like Shaw’s, people from low-income areas come mostly for the sales,” Smith said.
At times, Market Basket fervor can sound excessive. Although concern is widespread, it is not clear what if anything will change under new management. And the celebration of Arthur T. verges on the cultish. While forty-year veterans of the company take to print and radio to extol Market Basket’s practice of promoting only from within, Arthur T.’s face shows up on flyers styled after the Obama “Hope” posters that were inescapable during the 2008 presidential campaign.
But even if concerns turn out to be misdirected, popular commitments to Market Basket’s workers and to the company as a community institution are undeniable. The store is more than a business, as far as customers are concerned. As MIT economist Thomas Kochan has noted, the outcry is a rebuke to the Wall Street mentality whereby corporations exist only to enrich shareholders. The people feel enriched by it, and they want it to stay that way. That the rebuke is being felt, that the political weight of community and worker action is registering, is evident in the response from local bigwigs such as the Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung, who has been red-baiting protestors and their supporters—a sure sign that the message is getting through.
Among actual socialists, the spectacle of workers pining for their boss must seem bizarre indeed. But Arthur T. is not your average capitalist exploiter. He has built a company that serves as a sort of for-profit community service, responsive to the needs of every type of customer, including ones that others don’t bother to court because they have too little money and speak too little English. But this isn’t Walmart, which keeps initial prices down by pressuring suppliers, selling shoddy products, and directing their employees to welfare lines. Market Basket pays $12 per hour, which is not a lot but more than nothing. The company also hires more staff—at least, visible staff—than stores of comparable size. There's no self-checkout. A person checks you out, and usually someone else bags. A kid will take your cart to your car if you need help. Employees are constantly stocking shelves. That's a lot of people getting paid and a lot of customers benefiting. It is no wonder Market Basket finds protesters in its corner, while Walmart faces them down.
What Arthur T.’s Market Basket represents to employees and customers is the proverbial fair deal. Having less money doesn’t mean you are unworthy of a decent quality of life. What Arthur S.’s Market Basket represents is the age-old scheme of soaking low-end earners who should feel lucky for their meager repast. Arthur S. might think this reputation undeserved. It might in fact be. More important, though, is to recognize that, here in Boston, for a little while on a small but not a meaningless scale, with some quirky storylines in play, people are coming out for an ideal that serves everyone.