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shirley leung

With Market Basket epilogue in sight, what have we learned?

Protesters were outside Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury on Tuesday.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Protesters were outside Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury on Tuesday.

So what have we learned?

The lessons of Market Basket and the feuding Demoulases might not be as pure and simple as we would like. But we just witnessed something remarkable about the power of workers and customers, and the importance of being a benevolent CEO when too often big business trumps all.

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For six weeks, we were mesmerized by the sight of thousands of grocery clerks, cashiers, and other workers protesting at stores, on Facebook, and on the front pages of this paper. They did so at great risk, without the protection of a union, not because they wanted higher wages, but merely the return of their beloved boss, Arthur T. Demoulas.

Who among us would do that? Not many, if any at all. We were riveted because we wanted to be them. These rebellious employees gave voice to the voiceless masses who just wanted to hold on to decent wages for a decent day’s work at a time when fat cats get $50 million paychecks for showing up, and the gap between the rich and the poor is as gaping as ever.

With the comeback of Artie T., these 25,000 workers made a big bet on themselves -- and won. It may end up a Pyrrhic victory, but for a moment, let’s tip our hats to the humble worker.
After the Market Basket board ousted Arthur T., these foot soldiers of capitalism kept the story alive when they made flyers protesting his removal and distributed them to customers. Then they reached out to the media and politicians to talk about their improbable demand. Soon workers walked off the job and refused to restock shelves. Customers boycotted in solidarity, putting the economic squeeze on new management to do something.

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Turmoil at Market Basket dominated the news cycle here, day after day, eventually making national headlines and the network newscasts. None of this would have happened without these employees sticking their necks out.

Who knows if Market Basket will ever be the same, make as much money after all it has been through, or whether it will have to do business differently. But one thing’s for sure: It will give workers and corporate chieftains pause about how much power they each really have.

Business schools everywhere will hash out whether employees anywhere else can replicate what just happened here. It’s doubtful -- let’s be honest, if this were Bank of America or McDonald’s, 25,000 people long ago would have been out of jobs and replaced with other warm bodies.

As much as employees and customers vilified the new management and Arthur T.’s rival cousin Arthur S., those bosses didn’t put the squeeze on workers. Supervisors kept many employees on the payroll throughout the standoff, when the stores were virtually empty. At times, clerks and others got paid for showing up and protesting.

And that customer boycott might have qualified as genuine in the beginning, but as the Demoulas feud raged, the stores virtually ran out of produce and other perishables. Customers had to shop elsewhere.

Now onto Artie T., whose reputation as a good boss took on mythic proportions. There were rallies, posters, an anthem, and catchy slogans demanding his return. He made every CEO in America feel unworthy -- and for good reason. The Good Arthur paid generously, knew employees by name, and acted like he cared about them.

He did so because it was part of the grocery chain’s business model. Treat employees right, make them passionate about what they do, and watch your bottom line grow. It’s what Walmart doesn’t do, and what the rest of Corporate America should.

This was perhaps the Achilles heel of Arthur S. and the board, the inability to recognize placing people over profits. An Arthur S. regime paid more money out to family shareholders, while Arthur T. wanted to reinvest in the 71-store chain. Good Arthur is far from perfect -- the board pushed him out for being insubordinate and a court determined that his side of the family stole hundreds of millions of dollars in stock from the Arthur S. faction.

But Artie T. knew that people were the key to his company’s success. Now he will find out if employees were right to use brinksmanship to save Market Basket.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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