Back in mid-August, I was on vacation, sitting in a coffee shop in Hollywood, California, opening the morning newspaper when I was astonished to see a front page story about the battle back home for control of the Market Basket grocery empire—a battle that had begun weeks before when I was still in Revere.
I had first read about the fight when the news broke that Arthur S. Demoulas had toppled Arthur T. Demoulas and seized control of the company. By nearly all accounts, including those of many of my high school students who live in Revere and work at Market Basket, Arthur S. was poised to dramatically reduce employee benefits and all but eradicate the fairly generous profit sharing plan that Arthur T. had installed some time before. The battle had almost instantly turned nasty with workers walking off the job demanding that Arthur T. return to the helm, and with Arthur S. going as far as to banish Arthur T. from a country club in which the corporation held ownership. All the while, rather than opening its doors, the new Market Basket set to open in Revere had been left only to languish, empty; a sad symbol of corporate strife.
All of this had left me profoundly dismayed.
Arthur S. and many of those at the top level were already multi-millionaires and now they wanted to wring even more money out of the company? Make no mistake; I’m no class warrior. From what I have seen, with rare exception, rich people become rich through intelligence, discipline, and above all, hard work; so if they want to pay themselves handsomely, more power to them. But at what point is enough just about enough? Are you really going to “increase shareholder dividends” by cutting the benefits of your long time Produce Manager? You’re going to further enrich those at the very top by reducing the raise of a 16-year-old whose just trying to scratch together some extra cash for the weekend? I thought, how many Ferraris can you drive; how many yachts can you sail? The whole saga had left a bad taste in my mouth, and I had read little since back at that time.
Having been travelling for much of the weeks that followed, I had lost track of the Market Basket struggle; that is, until that August morning in Hollywood when I opened the Los Angeles Times and was shocked to read that the unthinkable was happening. Whereas in the past when non-union workers walked off a job in protest, they usually did so only to later be replaced by other, often desperate, workers. In the case of Market Basket, an entire community had actually rallied behind Arthur T. and the workers themselves. Not only had the workers in effect gone on strike, but also in a stunning turn of events, legions of customers had actually defected from Market Basket vowing to join the fight to reinstate Arthur T. The workers’ cause had gone viral on social media and people everywhere were boycotting the stores. The Market Basket drama had become a battle cry for an entire wounded middle class, and the eyes of the nation were upon the outcome. Economists as far off as Hollywood were weighing in with how they had never before seen a community support local workers with such sheer determination; and as a result of all this, the scales were beginning to tip. Without customers, Market Basket stores were now in disarray and hemorrhaging money. Millions of dollars were being lost weekly. Vendors were pulling the plug on the Arthur S. regime, and both store shelves and parking lots were left empty.
David had shown up for the fight of his life, and Goliath’s knees were buckling.
With renewed interest, I followed the story eagerly for the next few weeks and was further heartened to read that Arthur T. was ultimately able to prevail, at least in that he was able to buy out the controlling interest of Market Basket and restore himself as CEO of the chain. For once, the workforce had become the victor, greed the vanquished; and I watched the news as both workers and customers, an entire community in fact, joined together in celebrating their company’s comeback, and in heralding the return of a CEO who apparently cares more about his employees being able to retire with a modicum of dignity than with polishing the chrome on a new G6. For the record, I certainly don’t envy Arthur T.
He is now cast in the role of Atlas, burdened with the onerous task of trying to meet vast (but hopefully not crushing) debt obligations, while still trying to give his employees fair pay and benefits. For what it’s worth, in the end, Arthur S. and his crew walked off with well over a billion dollars—a number so staggering it is well beyond my imagination.
Good luck to them.
But meanwhile, while so many across the nation watched, something much bigger happened. As the new Market Basket has finally opened in Revere, a city that can surely use the jobs and opportunity, it occurs to me that Arthur T., along with the indomitable workers and customers of Market Basket, delivered something sorely missing from far too many in today’s brutal economic landscape: Hope.
And by my ledger, that’s priceless.
Marc Johnson is a long-time teacher in the Revere Public Schools.