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Protests at New England’s Market Basket show meaningful work is not only for the elite

(Cross-posted with author’s permission from Medium) Livia Gershon, Author

Workers rally outside a Market Basket store in Nashua, N.H.

You might have seen it in the news sometime over the past few weeks: workers from a New England supermarket chain taking to the streets to protest the removal of their former CEO, a guy known for giving workers good retirement benefits and a profit-sharing plan and remembering all his managers’ names. The man-bites-dog nature of the Market Basket story — “workers rally for their millionaire boss!” — acts as a Rorschach test for people with different political tendencies. You can focus either on the power of workers uniting to act in their own self-interest or the loyalty commanded by a business leader who treats employees well.

But, talking with employees at my local Market Basket Nashua, N.H., it seemed like something was missing for both those descriptions. The fight they’ve taken up isn’t just about supporting an excellent leader or preserving good pay and benefits. It’s about standing up for the chance to do work that means something to them and helps the people around them.

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If you don’t live around one of Market Basket’s 71 stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, here’s what you need to know about the chain: It’s this area’s most popular, and most affordable, grocery store. If you ask a low-wage family how they keep their food costs down, part of the answer is almost sure to be “Market Basket.” While other areas chains have struggled, Market Basket has thrived. Locals give credit for this to the company’s longtime CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas. He’s also known for making sure workers are paid decently and for the sort of personal touch that leads employees to bring up “It’s a Wonderful Life” when they talk about him.

But others in the family business decided he wasn’t doing enough to boost their profit margins, and in June, they fired him.

What followed was a general uprising, led largely by loyal middle managers and head office personnel. Warehouse operations and truck deliveries slowed to a crawl, thousands of employees showed up at rallies supporting the ousted leader, and customers took to Facebook, vowing not to shop at Market Basket until Arthur T. was back. The loss of business is reportedly costing the company $10 million a day.

There are signs like this all around the store

Like most regular Market Basket shoppers, I’ve avoided my local store in the weeks since the uprising began out of a mix of support for the workers and knowledge that deliveries aren’t coming in on a regular basis. But I dropped by last Sunday morning, a time when the store is normally so packed I would avoid it. The contrast was almost surreal. Maybe 10 cars in the lot. A couple of registers open, with teenage cashiers pausing in their conversations only occasionally to check a customer out. The produce department looked like something from a post-apocalyptic movie, with most cases stripped bare and only the odd acorn squash or package of guacamole mix remaining. Outside, next to the road, about a dozen on-the-clock employees held signs imploring drivers not to shop here.

When I started talking to the workers, I thought I’d hear about the great pay and benefits that the national media has been mentioning in all its coverage of the situation, but the story turned out to be a little less clear-cut than I expected. Mostly, employees said, they started at only $8 an hour, though they got overtime pay on Sundays and regular raises of 25 cents every six months. Retirement and profit sharing plans were good, but available only to those who put in a set number of hours. And yet, the workers’ support for Arthur T. was more intense than I’d been able to believe from reading quotes in the paper.

“Arthur T. was the reason Market Basket was the place everybody goes, because of the low prices and good customer service,” said Tyler Zaccagnini, an 18 year-old bagger whose family has shopped at Market Basket for as long as he can remember.

Zaccagnini said the work at the grocery store is pretty easy, and the pay decent, at least compared with his previous job at Dairy Queen. “That was horrible and stressful and the pay was $7.25 an hour,” he said. In contrast, he said, working as a bagger, “my first day, I was smiling the whole time. I love customer service, I love working with people.”

Zaccagnini acknowledged that things aren’t perfect. He can’t always get as many hours as he’d like, and he’s trying to get a second job to pay his expenses, including college classes. But he said he wouldn’t want to leave Market Basket. “We really are a big family here,” he said. “I don’t want to sound cheesy, but we are.”

Ramiro Mayor, a 19-year-old assistant manager, said he’s just gotten a second job, and he counts Market Basket’s willingness to be flexible about scheduling as a significant perk. “You can almost pick your own schedule,” he said. Workers almost never get called in to work on their days off, and they aren’t forced to take shifts they don’t want on short notice, which is a big hazard in a lot of service-sector jobs.

To Mayor, another big advantage of working at Market Basket is that it’s not understaffed. Employees work hard, and they’re professional — with neat uniforms to show it — but they’re not so stressed they can’t talk with each other. “I love the people I work with,” he said. “I have fun. I have lots of fun when I’m here.”

Assistant Manager
Ramiro Mayor

Not long into our conversations, both Zaccagnini and Mayor brought up the store’s prices and service. They said they took pride in being part of the place where most people they know want to shop. It reminded me of something I learned years ago, when I worked very briefly as a union organizer, trying to convince nurses’ aides that they needed more power on the job. When you talk to aides about their work, their big complaints are usually not the pay, even though they often make close to minimum wage. Instead, they worry that they don’t have sufficient staffing or the right tools to care for patients well enough.

Being able to do work you love, accomplishing something you care about, is generally understood as a privilege of elites — start-up founders or creative class types willing to accept lower pay for more prestige. The rest of us are expected to do our jobs just for the money, persevering through dull, hard labor with grit alone. But the truth is everyone wants to know that the work they’re doing is part of something good.

Running a grocery store checkout seems a lot lower-stakes than being an aide at a hospital, but there’s a parallel. I see it when I’m shopping with two screaming kids and a worker takes time to hand them stickers or ask about the stuffed animals they’re clutching. More importantly, I see it with neighbors who take a bus to Market Basket instead of walking to another store nearby because they need to make their food budget last until the next paycheck. Helping people feed their families decently is surely valuable work, and there’s a reason employees take pride in it.

So the workers keep rallying for Arthur T., and customers keep standing with them, staying out of the stores. At one level, the stakes might seem absurdly low: If Market Basket embraced the mantra of shareholder value, it might mean a bit less in workers’ 401(k)s and a bit higher price for milk. But on another it would mean the end of an organization where employees and customers feel like family and where workers have the breathing room to make it through their shifts with grace and good humor.

Mayor, the assistant manager, says that would be a disaster, and the only possible way out for the new management is reinstating the old CEO.

“Customers will come if he’s back because they’ll know we’re back, the Market Basket they know is back,” he said.

Livia Gershonis a freelance write in Nashua, N.H. @LiviaGershon

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