On Thursday morning, Tommy Aylward was jumping around, high-fiving people outside Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury like a little kid.
It looked like he had just hit MegaMillions. Or just spent a sleepless night after the Red Sox won the World Series, the Bruins won the Cup, the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and the Celtics won No. 18, all on the same day.
Instead, he had gone back to work.
The Market Basket saga, coming to a life-affirming conclusion on the cusp of Labor Day weekend, had a Hollywood feel to it. You know that somewhere in Southern California, more than one screenwriter is putting together a treatment that will make the rounds in the coming weeks. Too bad Frank Capra’s dead. He would have loved the script.
No doubt, there’s a playwright at work somewhere, too. The Market Basket story is a drama, an allegory, morality play, and fairy tale, all rolled into one. Dysfunctional millionaire families, idealistic everymen, a happy ending. Eugene O’Neill wouldn’t know what to do with that last part.
Beyond the inevitable feel-good film, and whatever else is produced to immortalize this amazing saga, the Market Basket story is about to become a case study at any number of business schools, from Harvard Business School to the Carroll School at Boston College to the Isenberg out at UMass Amherst and all the way out to the left coast.
But what exactly will be the take on all this, from popular culture to academia?
In the movie, the workers will be portrayed as ordinary, principled people who actually believe in what they do and why they do it, people who were willing to put their financial well-being on the line to stick up for themselves and a benevolent boss, a boss who, unlike them, was going to be rich no matter how this ended.
In the business schools, prospective MBAs will be taught that the Market Basket board, and the people they brought in to replace Arthur T. Demoulas, did just about everything wrong. But, when faced with rebellious employees, wouldn’t most corporations do almost exactly what the Market Basket board did?
The bigger question is: Was this some kind of turning point in the wider culture or an anomaly? I would love to think it’s the former but I’m not so sure.
Corporations exist to make a profit. Stockholders are considered far more important than workers. Corporate leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for shareholders, not maximize the contentment of workers. The Supreme Court famously decided that corporations are people, but judicial ruling can’t give them souls. Corporate leaders are supposed to do that. One legacy of the Market Basket standoff may be to underscore just how vital that executive mandate is.
Artie T. Demoulas is a modern-day Fezziwig, the big-hearted warehouse owner in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Fezziwig was a capitalist, but he prided himself on not maximizing profits at the expense of his employees, or his own soul. When the man who eventually buys him out makes a bid, suggesting he’ll never get a better offer, Fezziwig’s response could be lifted right out of the Market Basket story: “It’s not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business,” Fezziwig says. “It’s to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved.”
In the end, that way of life, a way of life that leads people like Tommy Aylward to wake up every day looking forward to going to work, prevailed at Market Basket.
But it did so not just because the workers there showed a remarkable loyalty to their boss. Market Basket customers showed an even more extraordinary loyalty to those workers and to Artie T. by refusing to shop there until Artie T. was brought back.
Would this happen anywhere else? Could it happen anywhere else?
The easiest way to answer that is to look in the mirror. Faced with a similar situation, would you do what the Market Basket workers did? I’d like to think I would, but none of us know, until and unless we face that situation.
Five years ago, the people who run some Hyatt hotels in and around Boston brought in a bunch of ladies to clean rooms for a lot less than the living wage they were paying their regular housekeeping staff. They shamelessly let the women they were pushing out the door train their replacements. It was like having a condemned man provide the bullets for his own firing squad.
I vowed, quietly, to myself, to never to stay at a Hyatt again. A couple of months ago, without thinking, I stayed at a Hyatt in New York. I remembered my vow at checkout.
Standing on principle takes more than principle. It takes memory.
On Friday, at the Market Basket in Warner, N.H., both the promise and peril of their new world order was on display. There were more people working in the store than shopping. Restocking was the priority of the day. There were still plenty of empty shelves.
But there was an incredible buzz in the place, an energy that was hard to explain and even harder to ignore. Each one of the workers wore the same thing. A smile.
The windows and aisles had posters that offered thanks, pictures of Artie T, and, most importantly, the promise of an extended 4 percent discount. This is, after all, a business.