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JOAN VENNOCHI

Market Basket’s lesson for unions

Philip Giordano for the Boston Globe

This summer’s epic revolt by Market Basket workers ended with the deal they wanted. Their beloved leader, Arthur T. Demoulas, appears set to buy the company from rival cousin Arthur S. Demoulas — and run it.

So, in honor of Labor Day, let’s celebrate the power of worker solidarity, when like-minded employees rally around a cause and fight together until they achieve it.

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One note, however: These particular workers are nonunion.

Over the past six weeks, thousands of Market Basket workers organized a labor movement that has been hailed as unprecedented and game-changing. Victory required extreme discipline and tenacity as well as broad-based buy-in to their mission by Market Basket customers. These laborers made it happen without paying a cent in union dues.

As the Market Basket standoff dragged on, business gurus cited the workers’ relentless effort on behalf of Arthur T. as a larger lesson for corporate America about what it takes to build a team. But there are also lessons for organized labor about what it takes to sell their cause.

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Most notable is the power of narrative. Market Basket workers used social media as an organizing tool, but, at the same time, they skillfully used old and new media to tell their story before the other side knew what was happening.

And, unless you were Arthur S., it was a story that had something for everyone:

Workers standing up for, not against, management.

The desire to believe in one corporate leader putting the well-being of his workers over shareholders, in an old-fashioned “It’s A Wonderful Life” way.

Employees of modest means willing to put paychecks for rent and mortgages on the line for principle.

“It speaks to a broader search and yearning for respect and fairness,” said Lew Finfer, a veteran community organizer who has worked for decades with unions to do just that by promoting better worker pay, conditions, and benefits.

The yearning Finfer references was documented for the press as customers boycotted Market Basket stores, bringing in receipts from rival grocery chains, as a show of solidarity with Market Basket workers.

But today’s unions, especially those representing public service employees, have a harder time getting the public to buy in to their agenda. Some of their problem lies in their tactics.

Recent headlines about the Teamsters concern allegations, first reported by Deadline.com, that some members of that union slashed tires and yelled racist, sexist, and antigay epithets at a “Top Chef” filming site in Milton because the show hired nonunion personnel to transport equipment. “As far as we’re concerned, it didn’t happen,” said a Teamsters spokeswoman — then she defended the right to protest. That right is theirs, but to what end, if it alienates the public to their cause?

Another questionable strategy? Leaving kids standing on a street corner waiting for a school bus.

As details of a new contract are worked out, some members of the union representing Boston school bus drivers refused to take part in a bidding process to sign up for bus routes. As a result, thousands of students last week had no guaranteed ride to charter schools and special education classes. The union president said he was encouraging drivers to work, but not everyone was showing up. Sending that kind of mixed message, without explaining the underlying issues, is no way to win public support.

Certainly, not all unions embrace such tactics. But those that do have taken too much to heart the idea that “you have to be tough because the bosses are tough,” said Harris Gruman, executive director of the SEIU State Council, which represents 85,000 workers.

Some union leaders, Gruman added, don’t get what the Market Basket workers intuitively understood — the need to build bridges to the community, allowing the public to understand the cause and relate to it.

Gruman argues that the SEIU has accomplished this in their fight to organize low-wage fast food workers and to increase the minimum wage. By fashioning a campaign that shows who works at the local Burger King, they’ve made the case that those workers deserve higher pay.

As for Market Basket, Gruman has his own ideas about the next best step for its employees to protect their rights.

“What they have done is some very old-fashioned rallying around a benevolent manager,” he said. “Obviously, Market Basket needs a union.”

Bottom line: Arthur T. can’t live forever. Market Basket workers deserve fair treatment no matter who is in charge.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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