In Market Basket’s Win, Did Workers Change The Game?

September 5, 2014

Labor unions are looking for lessons in the recent worker victory at New England supermarket chain Market Basket. By using Internet technology to rapidly coalesce around a single demand, non-union workers forced a sale of the company to their beloved CEO.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, that’s for sure. And they prevailed, which is even stranger. They took on this and forced these people to sell their shares to this one guy,” says Dennis Irvin with the United Steelworkers Union, Local 12012. “It’s amazing, totally amazing!”

At the annual Labor Day breakfast in Boston, Market Basket was the one thing all Irvin and other union members were talking about. Irvin says Market Basket would rank as one of the great victories in union history here — a long history lined with progressive milestones for child labor, the eight-hour workday and safer workplace standards. But Market Basket is not making union history. Its workers are non-union. Many are anti-union.

“This company never needed or never will need a union. We’re far stronger than that,” says Joe Schmidt, a Market Basket operations supervisor. He and other managers led the truckers and warehouse workers who walked off the job and brought the company to a standstill.

“Just think of it: There’s no union dues or union fees. And look what has been accomplished,” Schmidt says.

Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman shrugged off that cold shoulder at the Labor Day gathering with union members.

“There is one thing that we can learn from the Market Basket saga: Solidarity works, brothers and sisters. The secret to our ingredient is solidarity. It worked for them, and it will work for us,” Tolman told them.

But privately, union members are bothered by how effective Market Basket workers were without their leadership. The supermarket workers used social media to rapidly plan rallies and protests. And instead asking for the usual strike demands like better benefits or working conditions, they were just asking to get back their fired CEO.

“That is something that is not covered by the National Labor Relations Act,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, who teaches labor relations at Cornell University.

She says Market Basket shows the power of managers teaming up with rank-and-file workers. With experienced supervisors walking off the job at the grocery store chain, the replacement workers brought in by company executives didn’t really know what to do, and the business flailed.

Bronfenbrenner expects unions across the country will increasingly ally with managers to fight company executives and shareholders.

“These companies are becoming so rich. This discrepancy, this gap, has gotten so bad that even supervisors and managerial employees are saying, ‘We want our fair share, too,’ ” she says.

The organized protests by fast food workers nationwide are another example of changing dynamics in labor relations. The workers targeting franchise restaurants are doing so under a national labor law written more than a half-century ago that never anticipated workers across an industry banding together in a job action.

“Contemporary labor law doesn’t fit most working situations,” Bronfenbrenner says.

So Bronfenbrenner does not think that Market Basket has created a new model for organizing labor without unions. She says the supermarket worker victory just shows how the playbook is being rewritten. Bronfenbrenner says the labor movement needs to be just as creative and strategic as Market Basket workers were to be able to win the next fight.

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