Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Summer of Market Basket

Just in time for Labor Day the book We Are Market Basket: The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement That Saved a Beloved Business arrived in the mail (the official release date was August 12th). A documentary film is supposed to come out soon, also.

In some ways I think of last summer, the summer of 2014, as the summer of Market Basket (or, Demoulas, as we still call it in our household). The Market Basket workers' strike, which began as a protest rally at the Chelsea store on June 24, 2014, and ended on August 28, 2014, (the Thursday before the Labor Day 2014), was on everyone's lips that summer. We nearly lost friends over the issue of whether to continue to shop there or support the strikers (Mary and I joined the boycott). Here we are, a year later, the strike is part of history, recorded in book and movie, and we are at another long Labor Day weekend.

Labor Day honors every working man 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.

With their livelihoods at stake, how, went conventional wisdom, could semi-skilled workers have any chance of prevailing over management without a union? 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?

1. 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 a weak labor market, to quickly find qualified replacements for the entire workforce, Nevertheless, the threat of losing your job surely would have forced many protesting workers back to the job, at least 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"), guarantees the right to unionize and to strike without retaliation. When management threatened to fire the workers, the workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, using that pro-union law for protection.

2. The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (commonly known as the Taft-Hartley Act) modified the Wagner Act. Specifically it placed some restrictions on striking, among other things, requiring an 80-day notice period before a union strike. 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 would have been illegal, at least as it was conducted.

From the summer of Market Basket I take two lessons. (1) Labor still has power when organized, and when the laws protecting the rights of working women and men are enforced. (2) That labor laws written 70 or 80 years ago may not always reflect the realities of the current labor market, and to question whether they may need revision is not to be anti-union or anti-labor.