Mar­ket Bas­ket full of dig­nity

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION -

WASH­ING­TON — Who knew that one of the best made-for-La­bor Day speeches in Amer­i­can his­tory would be de­liv­ered by a CEO? And who could have guessed that the sum­mer’s ma­jor la­bor story would not be about a CEO sav­ing the jobs of his work­ers but about the work­ers sav­ing the job of their CEO?

This is the won­der of the happy-end­ing tale of Mar­ket Bas­ket, the New Eng­land gro­cery chain. Most of its 25,000 nonunion­ized work­ers walked out to get their de­posed CEO, Arthur T. De­moulas, re­in­stated as the company’s leader. Last week, they won.

It’s a story that makes you wish Frank Capra of “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” fame were still with us. Jimmy Ste­wart, who played George Bai­ley in that ex­cel­lent para­ble, would be ideal as Arthur T. He is called that be­cause his main ri­val is his cousin, Arthur S. De­moulas. Arthur S. thought that Arthur T.’s pro-worker, pro-con­sumer ap­proach was cut­ting into the fam­ily’s prof­its. When Arthur S. gained enough sway over the company be­cause one rel­a­tive switched sides, he ar­ranged for Arthur T. to be fired.

At this point, you can cue in Aaron Co­p­land’s “Fan­fare for the Common Man.” First, as my col­league Harold Meyerson re­ported in an ex­cel­lent col­umn on Mar­ket Bas­ket ear­lier this sum­mer, eight se­nior man­agers or­ga­nized an em­ployee protest. They were quickly fired. Then all hell broke loose. The lion’s share of the em­ploy­ees at the chain’s 71 stores joined the protest, fully aware that they had no job pro­tec­tion. Mar­ket Bas­ket’s cus­tomers (there is great af­fec­tion for the chain) were drawn to the work­ers’ side.

This worker-con­sumer al­liance bore fruit last week when a $1.5 bil­lion deal was ar­ranged un­der which Arthur T. as­sumed con­trol of the company, which has an­nual rev­enues of $4.6 bil­lion. At this point in our film, we might well want a ren­di­tion of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

There is one po­ten­tial catch: Get­ting the deal done will re­quire, as The Bos­ton Globe put it, “a boat­load of bor­rowed cash,” which will put pres­sure on Mar­ket Bas­ket’s bot­tom line. But the Globe also con­cluded that the agree­ment “is more or less in line with the company’s earn­ings and long-term po­ten­tial.”

The out­come set up Arthur T.’s ex­tra­or­di­nary speech last Thurs­day out­side the company’s head­quar­ters in Tewks­bury, Mass., ex­press­ing his grat­i­tude to­ward the work­ers. He pro­nounced him­self in “awe of what you have all ac­com­plished.”

And here is the part of the ser­mon that should be played reg­u­larly at both business schools and di­vin­ity schools — to business stu­dents be­cause it shows that a CEO who ac­knowl­edges all stake­hold­ers and not just share­hold­ers can be suc­cess­ful, and to di­vin­ity stu­dents be­cause it rec­og­nizes the in­her­ent dig­nity of ev­ery hu­man be­ing.

“In this or­ga­ni­za­tion, here at Mar­ket Bas­ket, ev­ery­one is spe­cial,” Arthur T. de­clared. “You have demon­strated that ev­ery­one here has a pur­pose. You have demon­strated that ev­ery­one has mean­ing. And no one per­son is bet­ter or more im­por­tant than another. And no one per­son holds a po­si­tion of priv­i­lege. Whether it’s a full-timer or a part-timer, whether it’s a sacker or a cashier, or a gro­cery clerk, or a truck driver, or a ware­house se­lec­tor, a store man­ager, a su­per­vi­sor, a cus­tomer, a ven­dor or a CEO, we are all equal. We are all equal and by work­ing to­gether, and only to­gether, do we suc­ceed.” Thomas Jefferson, meet Arthur T. Now I can hear my Marx­ist friends ob­ject­ing that Arthur T. is en­gag­ing here in what they might call “mys­ti­fi­ca­tion.” Ob­vi­ously, one les­son of this episode is that not ev­ery­one is equal when it comes to decision-mak­ing. The own­ers of a company have power that its work­ers don’t. This turned out as it did only be­cause Arthur T. could buy out Arthur S. It’s why we still need unions and other forms of col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion for em­ploy­ees. Not ev­ery CEO, alas, is like Arthur T.

But this story is also an in­stance where work­ers com­ing to­gether could wield more power than they imag­ined they had. And what’s so com­pelling about Arthur T.’s speech is its speci­ficity. Nam­ing those sack­ers and clerks and truck driv­ers and all the oth­ers who con­trib­uted to Mar­ket Bas­ket’s suc­cess was his way of as­sert­ing a cap­i­tal­ist ver­sion of the la­bor the­ory of value: With­out good work­ers, the “job cre­ators” can’t make it.

St. John Paul II, a great friend of la­bor, preached “the pri­macy of man in the pro­duc­tion process, the pri­macy of man over things.” The pri­macy of hu­man be­ings over things is what we cel­e­brate on La­bor Day. Arthur T. gets it.

E.J. Dionne’s email ad­dress is ej­dionne@ wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

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E.J. DIONNE

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