Friday, August 1, 2014

Day 361 of 365: What America Needs

If you live outside of the New England area, the name “Market Basket” might not mean much to you. In fact, if you live outside of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or Maine, it might stir up some vague recognition at best.

Right now Market Basket is in a completely unprecedented situation. Shelves are unstocked. Food products are not being delivered. Employees and customers alike are picketing and protesting. And board members are scrambling.

Market Basket has a very long and complicated history, filled with feuding family members and changing alliances within its ownership. But let me give you a short, almost offensively simple summary of what is going on: once upon a time there was a CEO named Arthur T Demoulas. Now, Arthur T did the unthinkable: he was able to run a successful grocery store chain that carried low-price items and provided its employees with living wages and proper benefits.

And, in doing so, he did something else unthinkable for a CEO: he earned the love of his employees. He understood that loyalty is earned; that no one should expect loyalty purely because they’re the ones signing the paychecks – a sentiment many people in management positions seem to forget.

This past June, Arthur T was fired alongside two other higher-ups. The actual reasons for the ousting still seem murky. Maybe it really was because he paid his employees too much and charged his customers too little – or maybe that was just a viable-enough excuse for a board filled with contentious family members to vote him out of office. The people in charge – which includes Arthur’s cousin and rival, Arthur S Demoulas, as well as some brand new people, like the former president of RadioShack – stepped in with a new plan to maximize profit. And it doesn’t take an economist to understand how such a company will maximize their profits.

In almost any other company, in almost any other situation, that would’ve been it. Beloved CEO is ousted and replaced by “consultants”. Wages and benefits are subsequently cut and prices are raised. Customers have to deal with a more expensive product and employees have to deal with working for less money and compromised benefits. Maybe there will be a strike; maybe not. Typically, it will stay business as usual.

But this time, it’s different. Employees are going in, working their shifts, and then going outside to protest, carrying signs that say things like, “Arthur T is our CEO.” Customers are coming in to give the employees pizza and words of encouragement, before leaving to buy their groceries somewhere else. Other customers are joining in on the picketing and the rallies calling for Arthur T’s reinstatement.

Market Basket first reacted to this dissidence by firing some of the protesting employees. This only stoked the fire as shelves became empty, produce was left to rot, and the sound of cars on the street honking in support of the protesters could be heard from inside the building.

In a world where even the slightest drop in revenue can result in a grocery chain closing down stores or going completely out of business, this has been a devastating blow for those currently running Market Basket. As I am writing this, Arthur T has proposed purchasing the 50.5% interest in the company – an offer that the board is still mulling over.

To the naked eye, this seems like just another local fiasco that would and should never make it past the regional news. But this is exactly the type of news story that America needs to hear.

As a society, we have become incredibly jaded. We look at the behavior of businesses and feel disheartened. We’ve given up hope on there ever being change. It feels like those in charge will do whatever they want, and with little accountability. As of late, it seems like those in the boardroom hear even the mention of “mandatory health insurance” or “wage increase” and react by firing off entire teams or slashing benefits. We live in a post-Occupy Wall St world, where we feel like there is genuinely nothing we can do. We are at the mercy of those in charge because they sign our paychecks. We fear addressing unfair situations because we could be met with, “Well – if you don’t want to work in these conditions, someone else will!”

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say something to that effect in the last month or so regarding Market Basket employees, I’d be able to buyout Market Basket. And, thankfully, the employees don’t agree with that sentiment. They’ve banded together and said enough was enough: it’s time for their voices to be heard. They don’t agree to those conditions and a poor job market is not enough to scare them into silence.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking to be in the twenty-first century and have people regard the job world as if we were back at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. People shrugging their shoulders and crossing their arms like they’re nineteenth century factory owners, rolling their eyes at the idea of installing safety bars in the machinery, telling the employees that they could always just leave and be replaced, reminding the employees that they should just be happy they have a job.

The Market Basket protests are a reminder that there is still power in the people: that if we are passionate, if we are organized and keep our goals clear, and if we are not willing to give up, then change is a possibility. We don’t have to be at the mercy of an out-of-touch consultant who doesn’t see a community of people so much as he sees a set of cogs for the machine.

The Market Basket protests are a reminder that we still have a voice, even if we feel like it got buried alongside the American Dream. And that is why this story is exactly what we need right now.

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