Politics of Poverty

3 things we learned from the battle for Market Basket

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Grocery workers and consumers rally to “save Market Basket” in their Tewskbury, Mass. store parking lot. The giraffe symbolizes the courage of the workers to “stick their necks out.” Photo: Minor Sinclair/Oxfam America

A victory for grocery store employees in Massachusetts can teach us some important new lessons about framing worker’s rights.

Minor Sinclair is director of Oxfam America’s US Regional Office.

The protest was unlike anything I’d ever seen in all my years as a social justice activist. On a hot August day, I and two Oxfam colleagues joined thousands of chanting workers in a protest outside of the Market Basket supermarket in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. But we weren’t alone. We marched side by side with managers with clipboards, corporate executives in ties, and customers waving and honking their support. In many ways, it felt more like a parade than a protest.

Why did so many people come together to join the Market Basket workers’ fight? And what we can learn from their efforts? As someone who’s been part of Oxfam’s workers’ rights program for years, here’s what I observed:

1.       Workers and consumers are capable of showing fierce loyalty to those who treat us fairly.

For those not familiar with the story, this summer 25,000 Market Basket workers were picketing, striking, and doing work stoppages and slowdowns to all but close 71 stores of the Market Basket grocery chain, a $3 billion privately-held company.

Incredibly, the workers’ single demand was the re-instatement of their beloved Market Basket CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, who had been dumped by the corporate board in June. Demoulas had gained this diehard loyalty by paying his workers 20 to 30 percent over market, while keeping prices low for customers. Everyone worried that with the CEO’s exit, the board would slash wages and raise prices – and reward themselves. In this case, workers were seen as trying to save the company and, by extension, save the communities which Market Basket served.

2.       We live here. We work here. We’re all in this together.

The Market Basket workers achieved solidarity in spades – from workers, from customers, from managers. Despite not having a union or formal leadership, 25,000 workers stuck their necks out in unity. The giraffe became the movement’s mascot. Managers and executives embraced the vision of a worker-centric company and put their jobs on the line. Market Basket reportedly lost millions of dollars a day as customers joined the demonstrations and, poignantly, taped their receipts from competitors’ stores to the front doors of the empty Market Basket stores.

The broad swell of solidarity is rare in worker rights actions today. Despite the fact that workers are worse off today than at any time since 1965, in the public’s eye, workers and their unions are often perceived as just another interest group advocating for their self-interest. People often respond by staying on the sidelines and feeling threatened by worker gains. To achieve real victories, we need to stand together.

3.       It’s incredibly motivating to be part of a cause larger than ourselves.

That day, there was an eerie sense that the fight was not really about Market Basket grocery stores, but about saving the “American way of life” – one where people earned a decent living, money circulated in the local economy, and institutions protected people from the social disruption inflicted by outside forces like corporate plutocrats and self-interested politicians.

And in fact, “David” won in this story: on Labor Day weekend, the Market Basket board agreed to re-instate Arthur T. Demoulas and sell a controlling interest of the company to him and his backers. Employees returned to work this week, and the image of a jubilant Market Basket butcher hugging a customer was priceless. My Oxfam colleagues joined the crowds in bringing their business back and congratulating the workers, who were delighted to be back at work.

The workers won because their cause was greater than themselves. They weren’t calling for a pay raise, but for their company to treat people fairly and to show loyalty to its customers and the community.

In Oxfam America’s Decent Work Program, we are living that philosophy, too. We are showing that protecting the rights of workers is good for companies and communities. While we support raising the minimum wage because it benefits 25 million workers, and raises 5 million people out of poverty, raising the minimum wage can also benefit companies with higher productivity and higher profits.

Time will tell if this worker-rights-as-a-broader-social-cause strategy can be as transformative as we believe. But it certainly was for the Market Basket workers who stuck their necks out during the hot and heady days of the summer of 2014.

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