What the Presidential Candidates Can Learn From Market Basket

By Daniel Korschun, PhD

It’s been over a year since New Englanders got their favorite supermarket back. On Aug. 27, 2014, Arthur T. Demoulas, and others on his side of the family, reached the deal to purchase 50.5 percent of Market Basket, forestalling a sale to a competitor chain, and restoring Arthur T. to his position as chief executive – he had been fired by a divided board two months earlier.

The outcome would have been far different, and likely quite tragic, had it not been for a grassroots uprising of two million customers, employees (they call themselves associates) and suppliers. Those stakeholders were driven by a devotion both to Arthur T. and the institution itself.

The protest also attracted lawmakers. While there were notable exceptions (at the time, Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick were each slow to comment), dozens of state senators, representatives and local officials recognized how important this was to their respective constituents. Barry Finegold, the Massachusetts state senator who appeared at many of those rallies throughout the crisis last year, described the Market Basket protest as “one of the most bi-partisan issues that I ever got involved with.” He spearheaded a lawmaker boycott of Market Basket which collected more than 160 signatures across Massachusetts and New Hampshire. We Are Market Basket

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the first presidential candidate to throw her hat into the Market Basket ring (link). In an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe, she argued that more companies should install profit sharing programs akin to those at Market Basket. She even proposed a new tax credit for those that do. Clinton has incorporated the proposal into her stump speech.

Given the region’s importance in the primary process, it’s hard to imagine that she won’t be joined by others. And prior bipartisan support for Market Basket suggests that we will hear from candidates on both sides of the aisle. That’s because the Market Basket story has something for everyone.

Some on the left will find an inspiring story of a grassroots movement that scored a victory against corporate greed. This dovetails with much of Bernie Sanders’ message that wealth inequality is “the great moral issue of our time.” Others on the right may feel vindicated that a group of non-union workers spearheaded such a pro-business campaign. Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are just two examples of Republican candidates who have stated their opposition to some unions.

While many see opportunity in linking with the Market Basket story, the trouble is, the story doesn’t fit neatly with preconceived notions on either side.

This was never a statement by the so-called “99 percenters” to stick it to the 1 percenters. It may be true that most protesters saw Arthur T.’s billionaire cousin and rival Arthur S. as the villain of the saga, but it wasn’t because he was rich; it was because they believed he was trying to become richer at the expense of customers and employees. Arthur T. is just as wealthy, but protesters never denigrated that wealth; rather, they celebrated his success as a business person and fought for him to return to the executive suite.

Likewise, while the protest did not involve a unionized workforce, it was hardly an anti-union event. It is also true that when some unions came calling during the protest last year, senior managers at Market Basket declined their offers for help. “This company never needed or never will need a union. We‘re far stronger than that,” said operations supervisor Joe Schmidt at the time (NPR interview). But protesters were locked in a struggle to preserve the same things that unions were designed to protect, a livable wage, dignity in the workplace, a share in the success of the organization, and a feeling of contributing to something larger than oneself. This was a pro-business protest that affirmed the need to improve people’s lives, not just pad the bottom line.

Those who try to force-fit Market Basket onto a particular political ideology miss much of its value, and in my view, shortchange what the protest was trying to accomplish: preserve a company and a culture that they believe is special.

Despite this concern, we should not only expect presidential candidates to talk about Market Basket and last year’s protest, we should welcome it. Though the case may not support any single policy position, understanding Market Basket has value both for candidates and for voters. For candidates, the protests provide a unique view into the psyche of New Englanders. No other modern story illustrates the region’s strongly-held values of tradition, loyalty, civic duty and dogged determination quite so dramatically. It’s a handy place to start for candidates who want to know what makes New Englanders tick. For voters, the story opens the way to enlightening discussions about what candidates hold dear. At town hall meetings, we should ask them what lessons they take away from Market Basket, and how they will apply those lessons if elected. Because the protest was so unusual, it is more difficult to give a stock answer to this sort of question.

Market Basket is truly a New England success story. Let’s use it to move beyond knee-jerk ideology and toward a deeper discussion of the role our corporations play in our lives and in our society.

Daniel Korschun, PhD, is an associate professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, and co-author of the book We Are Market Basket: The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement that Saved a Beloved Company.

To schedule an interview with Korschun, contact Niki Gianakaris at 215.895.6741 or ngianakaris@drexel.edu.

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