The Battle of the Basket

Sometimes magazines surpass your expectations.  I click on a lot of links that my friends post about social issues on Facebook, but I can’t say a lot of them lead to Esquire magazine.  Yet the other day, I followed a link posted by a former teaching colleague of mine to an excellent article Esquire ran by Chris Faraone about labor relations at Market Basket, a regional supermarket chain I’m familiar with from having spent most of my life in the Greater Boston area prior to moving to North Carolina.  I’m interested in the topic because one of the songs on a record I’m working on is about supermarket chains.  (You can link to a Kickstarter campaign I’m running to support this pro-labor project HERE.)

Market Basket

Market Basket had great prices and a great produce section, and, at their Somerville location at least, a diverse clientele that can be rare to find in the Boston area.  What I didn’t know at the time was that they were also a company that took a stand against common supermarket practices that shortchange the people who work for them to boost their bottom line, and cater to the greed of their directors.

The article shows that management and labor can both do well at the same time, rather than play a zero sum game:

“Market Basket’s formula proves that executives and managers and cashiers can all profit, together.  Employees get the benefit of a 15% profit sharing plan provided by Market Basket, while the groceries the store sells are less expensive, on average, than Walmart’s.  As for the register:  Market Basket rang in $4.6 billion in revenue last year, and is the 127th biggest privately owned company in America.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for their board of directors, who ousted progressive CEO Arthur T. Demoulas in order to join the likes of Walmart in a race to the bottom of the ethical barrel.  A family squabble between cousins named Arthur (S.&T.) seems to have been involved. Market Basket is a privately owned company.  Despite this personal context, Arthur T. DemoulasMB Xmas framed the issue in terms of his staff rather than himself when store workers were fired for skipping shifts to demonstrate outside corporate headquarters.  “This is not about me.  It is about the people who have proven their dedication over many years and should not have lost their jobs because of it.”

Market Basket may not be a privately owned company for long.  Arthur S. is considering selling out to a private equity giant that already owns Shaw’s, the major supermarket chain in Massachusetts, as well as Safeway and other large grocery chains.  This would continue a trend that parallels events on Wall Street that concentrate more and more power in the hands of a shrinking number of huge conglomerates.  (The board has in fact hired JP Morgan & Chase Co. to advise them on buyout offers.)  The whole episode shows the necessity for legislative changes that change the way business is done in the US – you can’t leave it all up to the patrician graces of an individual CEO.

In his book Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel uses the image of an hourglass to illustrate the result:  when every grain of sand has to pass through a narrow center at the middle of the container, the gatekeepers of that passage gain incredible power to set prices in ways that undermine others, especially the farmers that produce the food we rely on.  The effect could be described as turning a heart into blood:

turning a heart to blood

If you live in MA and shop at Market Basket, give the board a call.  They’ve already lost more than a million in sales because of demonstrations and boycotts in one week alone.

Artie T Shake



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