Local News
11:44 am
Mon August 11, 2014

Why Market Basket Workers Haven't Unionized

Signs hung by workers at the Market Basket in Somerville.
Signs hung by workers at the Market Basket in Somerville.
Credit Abbie Ruzicka / WGBH

Monday marked the beginning of the fourth week in the struggle by Market Basket employees to reinstate ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.

The Demoulas family and the Market Basket independent board of directors traded statements throughout the weekend, with each insisting they'd made reasonable proposals and insinuating the other side was wasting time.

Another option workers could explore to end the standoff is unionization.

Even while trading oblique public comments, the spokeswoman for the independent board remained shrouded, asking that her name and the name of her firm not be used — and Arthur T. Demoulas will only speak through statements issued by his public relations firm.

The only people talking publicly and freely remain the employees advocating the return of Arthur T. as CEO.

"I am not going to go work for somebody else and take everything this man’s taught me and help somebody else grow a business he helped build," said protester Tom Gordon. "Not happening."

Gordon says the same thing as other Market Basket workers when you ask them — if you guys want to work under certain standards, and it doesn’t look like Arthur T. is getting it done, why not just fight for your rights yourself? Why not just unionize?

"Don’t want any part of a union," Gordon said. "We don’t need a union."

Several unions have voiced support for the Market Basket workers. But there’s a very simple reason a union won’t work for them — unions can’t include management under National Labor Relations Board rules. And in the case of Market Basket, members of management like Gordon are standing among the rest of employees.

Besides, Gordon says, if workers needed to do anything differently, Arthur T. would tell them.

“Somehow, he would’ve let us know: 'Listen, I just can’t do this, you guys do what you need to do,'" Gordon said. "But as long as he’s continuing to fight for us, we’re going to fight for him."

Still, if they chose a union, they wouldn’t have to pin their hopes on one guy, says professor Tom Juravich of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"It would give workers some legitimate voice and some legitimate power on the job, which they are only getting indirectly through a family member maybe, hopefully, taking care of them," Juravich said.

Juravich says all the Market Basket workers would have to do is have 50 percent plus one of employees sign authorization cards. Or the company could voluntarily recognize a new union.

"It could be a great way for the company to also to save face at this point, in the sense of really signing on the dotted line and guaranteeing these workers rights going forward,” he said.

But Market Basket employee Jim Lancey says none of this is about workers' rights. It really is about the one guy, Arthur T Demoulas.

"Five days after he found out he was going to lose his $4 billion company, he attended a wake, you know, my father’s funeral service in Leominster," Lancey said. "He was there for 15 minutes rubbing my mother’s hand, then he says, 'I’ve got to go, I’ve got to get to Boston,' Yeah, to save the company. I mean, people don’t do that — this guy is extraordinary."

And Lancey says workers don’t want to bring in some other organization that might meddle with the way Arthur T. was doing things.

"Unions — you know, they started out with good intent years ago, they used to help people get fair wages and everything — now, I think they go to the extremes," Lancey said. "And we’re not looking for extremes, we’re not looking for more money, we’re not looking for better benefits, we’re not looking for anything like that."

James Green, a history professor at UMass Boston, says that attitude harkens back to an earlier age when workers trusted bosses and bosses took care of workers.

"That’s what the sort of great argument for American capitalism is, that you can have a benevolent workplace with fair standards and make profits at the same time," Green said. "And the economic world isn’t going in that direction, but here’s some folks who are holding on to that idea.”

But only these people get to hold on to the idea, Green says.

"Such a workplace can only occur if there’s one remarkable individual like Arthur T. Demoulas," he said. "And I think the public would say, well why is that? Why should it depend on just one big hearted guy? Shouldn’t all workplaces be like this?"

Maybe — but that’s not something the Market Basket workers can do anything about, says Tom Trainor, a fired member of the Market Basket upper management. He says all they can do is try to preserve this place.

"Unfortunately, you know, in society now, if you don’t go at least get a bachelor’s degree, you can’t get a job anywhere," Trainor said. "That doesn’t happen in this company. You don’t get somebody out of college with an MBA that’s going to take a senior management position in this company, it doesn’t work that way. You learn the company from the ground up."

And while that culture, fostered by Arthur T., might be disappearing elsewhere, Trainor says they might be able to preserve it indefinitely at Market Basket.

"Forever," he said. "His kids are just like him. They’re the most down-to-earth, most humble people you would ever want to meet. You would never know that those people are multimillionaires. His kids call me 'mister.'"

Trainor says rather than demand respect and dignity through a union, Market Basket workers will remain loyal to people who give it freely.

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