Friday, August 29, 2014

United We Stand with Arthur T.

Res Publica

United We Stand with Arthur T.

September 5, 2014

In is fitting that the Market Basket workers' strike, which began as a protest rally at the Chelsea store on June 24th, ended on August 28th, the Thursday before the long Labor Day Weekend. Labor Day honors every workingman and woman in America, but we all know that its origin lies in the recognition of the advances in employer-employee laws and practices wrought by organized labor, that is to say, labor unions. And, therein, lies two ironies.

The summer of 2014 witnessed a successful organized labor action on a scale we haven't seen in decades. Organized? Yes. Unionized? No.

Striking Market Basket employees took on the board of directors and won. The board of the company, which was owned in majority by allies of rival cousin Arthur S. Demoulas, was forced to back down, give in, and make the deal to bring back Arthur T. The workers were greatly helped by thousands of customers, and even some vendors, who joined in a boycott. But what they did not have was a union. A union would have provided institutional memory of past labor strife, professional staff to organize workers and confront management, and reserves of funds to assist striking workers and their families.

With their livelihoods at stake, how, went conventional wisdom, could semi-skilled workers have any chance of prevailing over management without a union? But the Market Basket employees did prevail. Throughout the protests employees were quoted in the press saying, We don't need a union, we have something stronger, we are a family. It's truly an inspiring story. But, also, an unusual, almost unique, story. Who needs a union when you have a boss, Arthur T., who gives you better pay, benefits, and sense of being stakeholders in the company than you are likely to get under a union contract?

Furthermore, don't discount how past union activity benefited the Market Basket employees. When the employees walked off, the new management threatened to fire them. Now, from a practical standpoint the board would have been sore pressed, even in this weak labor market, to quickly find qualified replacements for the entire workforce, nevertheless, the threat of losing you job would surely have forced many protesting workers back to the job, one would expect. But they did not return. Why? Because you cannot fire workers for striking. Its a federal law, The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (commonly called the "Wagner Act"), that guarantees the right to unionize and to strike without retaliation. When management threatened to fire the workers, they filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, using that pro-union law for protection.

The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (commonly known as the Taft-Hartley Act) modified the Wagner Act. Specifically it placed some restrictions striking, among other things, requiring an 80-day notice period before a union strike. Perhaps because in 1947 the terms organized labor and unionized labor were, functionally equivalent Taft-Hartley placed no such restriction on non-unionized workforces. Therein lies the second irony. These non-unionized workers successfully used a pro-union law, but had they been unionized the strike, at least as it was conducted, would have been illegal.