Market Basket Strike Passes 1-month Mark

Read the latest on the strike here.

Boston, MA, August 20, 2014—Over 25,000 retail, warehouse, and transportation workers have paralyzed the operations of New England-based Market Basket supermarkets for more than a month now.

marketbasketstrikeLacking previous organization into any union structures in any part of this grocery chain, workers have nonetheless brought operations to a near standstill, and kept the shelves empty of fresh stock.

Known for its relatively low prices and high-quality fresh foods, Market Basket has dominated market share among working-class customers in the areas of its operation. But the sympathy of this customer base for the struggle of these workers has helped reduce company revenues to a mere trickle over the past four weeks.

Uneven and Combined Development

This strike has several odd characteristics which have thrown many local labor and left activists into some confusion.

Its primary spark was the coming to a head of a struggle within company management for control over the business. Decades of bitter internecine warfare between two wings of the family which has run Market Basket led to a shift in the balance of power and the ousting of the company’s popular CEO earlier in June. His popularity among the workers was based on wage rates, benefits, and conditions of work which were considered superior to those in other grocery operations—even the unionized grocery chains.

The new management team brought on board a couple of new members who brought with them a reputation for squeezing higher profits out of businesses—and that can only mean squeezing the workforce more. Fear for the future of their livelihoods prompted a layer of floor managers—including the district manager of 37 of the 71 stores—to begin protesting the ousting of the old CEO. They launched an online campaign which steadily gained public support, but failed to make much headway.

Recognizing the limitations of their power to influence the decisions of Market Basket’s board of directors, these managers began agitating among the clerks, counterworkers, produce workers, truck drivers, and warehouse workers to curtail the flow of goods through the stores, which finally led to the outbreak of the strike on July 18.

At the same time, they launched public rallies of 2,000 and more workers and community supporters with the single demand of restoring the old CEO to his position within the company’s board.

The response from the workforce was immediate and dramatic, leading to the clearing of shelves, and the emptying of parking lots as customers stayed away.

Teamsters Local 25 sent a delegation to the strikers, offering legal and organizing help, but were turned away by the strikers, who saw these organizers as outsiders attempting a takeover. “We’re already organized, we don’t need any help,” the Teamsters were told.

Nevertheless, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445 and Massachusetts Jobs With Justice have continued public support efforts for the striking workers, and outreach to those workers who have already been adversely affected. A fund has been set up to support striking workers which, according to the Boston Globe, has received over $91,000 in contributions so far.

As the strike remained solid over the first few weeks, Market Basket began firing managers and threatening workers’ jobs with permanent replacements. The company held a “job fair” on August 4, but reports indicate that community solidarity kept attendance quite sparse, even though youth unemployment continues to be high here.

Novel situation

An August 12 Boston Globe article pointed out that “Market Basket workers don’t have a union. But they achieved in three weeks what few unions have accomplished in recent years: They stood up to their multibillion-dollar employer, won local and national sympathy for their struggle, and stayed united.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this fight is the role of store managers in organizing the workers into the labor action.

The Globe quoted Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center of the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, who “pointed out that national labor law bars managers from participating in unions.

“‘Here you have an example of the advantages of not being within the law,’ Lichtenstein said.

“‘This is clarifying. If you’re really going to have a revival of the labor movement in America, all these phony distinctions about who is a manager and who is a worker . . . have to be cast aside.’”

The Globe noted that a 2010 warehouse strike at another area chain, Shaw’s Supermarkets, ended with the store managers hiring scabs to keep goods flowing, weakening the resolve of many strikers to resist crossing the picket line, and resulted in the imposition by the company of the contract they proposed in the first place.

But because this strike action is not being conducted by an existing, recognized labor union, the legal restrictions to worker activity imposed by capitalist law do not apply: there is no wait for cards to be signed, certification elections, cooling-down periods, federal mediators, binding arbitration, or any of the other myriad obstacles the capitalist government has imposed on the labor movement to weaken and break the application of direct worker power to a conflict with management.

What is to come?

Two governors have intervened in talks with Market Basket’s board in the attempt to find a solution. But every indication is that the board is paralyzed with indecision, and is watching tens of millions of dollars drain out of the company’s coffers as it alienates its working-class customer base and faces the unbroken spirit of its front-line employees.

An August 20 Boston Globe column quotes former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro as having “never witnessed a board behaving this badly. A good one, he said, would have resolved this crisis in a week. He said the moment employees started walking out and customers starting boycotting in solidarity is the moment the board should have owned up that it made a mistake in firing Arthur T. (Demoulas).”

More important, from the working class point of view, is that Market Basket workers have demonstrated to themselves and other workers the power of direct, united action. Management will either accede to the workers’ demand, or they will destroy the company, because the workers have demonstrated that as long they stay strong, and keep firm support in the community and the rest of the labor movement, they have the power to impose their will on the company.

Whether they succeed in winning their single demand of reinstatement of the old CEO, or whether some other solution is found, a new day has dawned at Market Basket. The self-confidence of the workforce has gained a powerful form in their direct action, and future moves against their wages and conditions can be expected to be met with similar solid action. This is provided that the workers will come to understand the need to keep themselves collectively organized as a union. This strike shows that a union is not merely a building with a bureaucracy, but all the workers united together, electing their own leadership.

Through the example of this strike, many union workers can see how, if they take charge of their union and are willing to push aside the anti-labor laws and other obstacles, they too can stand up to their bosses and begin to turn things around.


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