We don’t really have a name for what’s happened at Market Basket supermarkets over the last six weeks. Thousands of non-union workers, both hourly employees and managers, have walked off the job together. Customers have joined them, so you are more likely to find a shopper outside protesting than inside spending money.
It’s not exactly a strike. It’s more of a revolt.
Why did they do it? Not for higher pay – their wages are among the best in the industry. Hostile workplace conditions? No. The protesters all say they like their jobs – love them, even. Exploitation? No. They share in the family-owned company’s profits and they have done well along with the company’s owners.
So what made them walk? It was a reckless decision by the majority owners to fire the CEO who symbolized the deep bond between employees and the company.
BONDS OF LOYALTY
The ousted CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, let them know that he valued their contribution to his company and treated them as teammates in a successful enterprise. Loyalty to him and distrust of new management have slowed business down to a trickle and crushed stockholder value. The business may never recover.
What these workers are showing us is a new way to look at the relationship between workers and their employers, one that other businesses would be wise to notice.
• The old battle lines don’t make sense: Labor, management and ownership are in the same boat and can accomplish more working together than they can when they are fighting.
• Treating employees well is good business: You develop productive workers when you treat them fairly, and customers like it, too.
• If employees have to suffer from management decisions when things go badly, they ought to have some say in what those decisions might be.
These are radical notions in a time when the labor market is supposed to be fluid, and workers can be shed to smooth out every dip in the business cycle. Young people today are taught to be flexible and ready to work for a dozen or more companies in the course of their working lives. They are not expected to be loyal to their employers, and they don’t expect their employers to be loyal to them
The Market Basket workers are different. Some of the demonstrators are new hires, but many are workers with 20, 30 even 40 years of service to a company that valued them.
It’s easy for a company to measure an increase in the quarterly stock price and difficult to measure the benefits of teamwork and loyalty. But those values can have a much greater effect on the company’s long-term health, and smart owners should pay attention.
Market Basket isn’t the only company to recognize this. Maine’s own L.L. Bean is a local example of a family-owned company that’s combined good labor relations and excellent customer service to have decades of success.
As Market Basket’s majority owners have found out, without their employees they don’t have a viable business. Replacing the workforce may be possible, but it would take so long and be so expensive the company might not survive, and if it did, there is no way of knowing whether its customers would come back.
We hope it doesn’t come to that. Market Basket is too good a corporate citizen to be sacrificed over a family feud that appears to have little to do with what makes the business succeed. We hope that the owners – either the current ones or a new buyer – can find a way to regain the employees’ trust and continue setting an example that other businesses will want to follow.
This job action represents something new in labor relations, and there is a lot to learn here for those who are paying attention.