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Analysis

Market Basket uprising’s success hard to replicate

As celebration gave way to reflection the day after protesting Market Basket employees won the return of their leader, Arthur T. Demoulas, it remained unclear if the miracle of Tewksbury was truly a breakthrough moment for middle-class workers or a one-time phenomenon.

Ultimately what looked like a kamikaze mission ended in success, and as Demoulas offered thanks and congratulations Thursday morning outside company headquarters, one elated employee after another said they would do it again.

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Yet so much had to break the Market Basket workers’ way that it is hard to draw a formula for replicating the movement at workplaces across the country.

For starters, they were aided by an uncommonly devoted customer base that threw in with the cause by honoring a boycott that helped paralyze the chain’s 71 stores. Employees of far more recognizable companies, such as Burger King and Walmart, have experienced nothing like the solidarity of Market Basket shoppers in their own labor actions.

That may be owed in part to the central role a supermarket plays in its community, and a dynamic where the customers and workers are also friends and neighbors, which allowed people who weren’t Market Basket employees to feel as if the fight was theirs, too.

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The traditional management vs. worker relationship also was turned on its head in a way that is unlikely to be seen again. Yes, Market Basket was a house divided, but the schism was in the Demoulas family. One faction of management was exiled, and the one that replaced it seemed at times ill-equipped in the face of an inspired — and novel — job action.

Arthur T. Demoulas was fired in June by a company board controlled by his cousin and longtime rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, touching off the demonstrations by loyal employees who said they would not work for anyone else.

‘It defies everything we thought we knew about how businesses are run and who has the power.’

Daniel Korschun, Drexel University 
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When the chief executives hired to replace Arthur T. — there were two — asserted themselves early in the game by dismissing eight organizers of the protests, the move only further galvanized workers. In the face of broadening and hardening opposition, the CEOs appeared gun-shy; many employees who ignored subsequent ultimatums were not disciplined.

It’s hard to imagine executives at other major corporations being so indecisive — or patient — and abandoning the traditional script that calls for mass firing of dissenters.

The hammer did come close to falling, though. Anxious at the deteriorating finances of the company, the Market Basket board of directors was considering a plan to shutter 61 of the chain’s 71 stores and lay off most of its 25,000 employees if the negotiations between the warring Demoulas camps carried on much longer.

“There was a point at which it seemed like [a resolution] wasn’t going to happen,” confessed Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who helped mediate the talks. “It could have gone differently.”

In fact, many business and labor specialists predicted the standoff would end badly for the workers. After all, this was a non-unionized band of cashiers, deli slicers and shelf stockers clashing with a grocery empire with $4.6 billion in annual revenue. And their demand was particularly unsavory for Market Basket’s majority shareholders: They wanted the other side of the family, led by Arthur S. Demoulas, to cede control to their bitter rival.

“It was an unprecedented situation, and it defies everything we thought we knew about how businesses are run and who has the power,” said Daniel Korschun, a fellow at the Center for Corporate Reputation Management at Drexel University. “Many scholars, myself included, are eating crow right now.”

Yet the protest movement exacted a toll on the very employees and customers who led it. Some high-ranking workers were fired; part-timers saw their hours reduced, then cut altogether, forcing many to seek other jobs to make ends meet. Low-income shoppers who depend on Market Basket’s bargain prices turned to food pantries.

Even now, the hardships may not be over.

David Lewin, professor of management at the University of California Los Angeles, said those who lobbied to bring back Arthur T. should take a moment to savor the victory, then brace for a new reality. The version of Market Basket Demoulas and his loyalists reclaimed has significantly more debt and, for now at least, fewer customers than the one from which he was forced out two months ago.

For example, how would those debt repayments affect the company’s policy of generous quarterly bonuses and robust profit-sharing payments that workers have enjoyed for decades? Employees love Arthur T. because they believe he puts them before shareholders. But now he has a third party to answer to — lenders to whom he owes at least $1 billion.

“If it turns out he’s overpaid for the company, those chickens could come home to roost pretty quickly,” Lewin said.

Chris Pollara, founder of Boston digital marketing firm Convertiv, marveled at the way Market Basket workers used social media to rally people behind a cause as seemingly mundane as where to buy milk, bread, and eggs. His clients — never mind other activists — crave the sort of traction achieved by these tech novices.

But it’s not as simple as copying their techniques, which were not groundbreaking.

“This is why people get frustrated by social media,” Pollara said. “You can put money behind a campaign, but if people don’t connect with it, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Beyond the challenge of carrying Market Basket’s momentum, there is a basic question for those who would try: Are you willing to pay the price of success? Amid all the praise for Market Basket employees’ highly effective campaign, it’s important to recognize the cost and for others to weigh whether a similar battle would be worth fighting, said Maura Greene, a Boston employment attorney who followed the conflict closely.

“If you’re a worker, you look at this and say, ‘Maybe we have more power than we realize,’ ” said Greene. “On the other hand, you see how the protest cost some Market Basket workers paychecks, so you have to use that power carefully.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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