If Arthur T. Demoulas succeeds in buying out the Arthur S. side of the family — petty squabbles might still cause a deal to unravel — the debate will begin: Who won in the Market Basket standoff? Maybe Arthur T., now firmly in control. Possibly Arthur S. and his kin, graced with far more money than the demands that originally precipitated this crisis. Perhaps both sides of the embarrassing and now besmirched Demoulas family are losers. Or, perhaps, with the benefit of good PR firms, both emerge winners.
It’ll take a while to sort out the family dynamics, but if and when the standoff is finally over, the real winners should be seen as Market Basket’s employees — “associates’’ in the company’s nomenclature — and, to a lesser but still significant degree, the customers who supported their calls for a boycott. They made this happen, and did so despite threats to workers’ livelihoods, stern lectures that they should simply give up and get back to working and shopping, and risks that their tactics might backfire, destroying the business they said they loved.
The threats were many. In mid-July, the company fired those it regarded as ringleaders of protests against the removal of Arthur T. as CEO. By the month’s end, the new co-CEOs told all employees to get back to work by Aug. 4, or they’d be terminated, backing up their warnings by holding an early-August job fair. In mid-August, management made another attempt, saying if employees didn’t return, “the company will consider you to have abandoned your job.”
More insidious, perhaps, was the growing chorus of voices urging workers to return. “I think it’s important . . . for the associates to understand that they can go right back to work and they would do a service to the people served by Market Basket,” Governor Deval Patrick said two weeks ago. The company’s so-called independent directors were delighted and readily agreed, “No one should ever hold 25,000 associates, 2 million shoppers, and our local economies as leverage in a business negotiation.”
It all sounded so reasonable: You’ve made your point, folks. Now get out of the way and let the smart business people sort it out.
The rebellious employees refused to follow this sage advice. “We will not go back to work when the governor, the board, or any other entity tells us to,” they posted. Their argument was that if they did return, if things went back to normal, then the pressure to resolve the family feud would be off. Of course, that same pressure could ruin the business, but that’s a claim frequently made when workers strike. And in this case, the rebels were almost certainly right. The intense rivalry and bad feelings within the family were at such a level that, from the Arthur S. side of the family, almost any outcome would have been better than letting Arthur T. back in charge. From the employees’ point of view, though, having Arthur T. back was the only acceptable outcome.
So what will this hard-earned victory mean? This may be such an odd circumstance that it is sui generis, never to be repeated. Or it could be, as Chris Faraone dramatically phrased it in Esquire Magazine, that the worker and customer revolt was “the last stand for the middle class.” Company mission statements are often padded with talk about how they value their people. With their victory, the Market Basket protesters may take that talk one step further, pushing other businesses to recognize that their success comes not only from those who risk money, but also from their employees — and that those employees are entitled to a share of that success.
Still, many worry that after weeks of empty stores and empty shelves, Market Basket may be permanently damaged. I think them mistaken. When the doors reopen, expect to see a surge of customers — not only those returning but new ones as well, intrigued by all the hype. During the first few weeks, Market Basket will have its work cut out for it. Employees, I expect, will be keeping late hours. But pull it off, and the company they won back will not only be as it was, but better still.
This column originally appeared in The Boston Globe on August 26, 2014.