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A Blueprint for Equality: Market Basket and the Future of Fair Pay

Market Basket Protesters (via the Save Market Basket Facebook group)
Protesters at a rally in support of ousted Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas 
(courtesy Save Market Basket)

“Every once in a while,” Robert Reich, the former US Secretary of Labor, recently wrote, “something happens that exposes the underpinnings of American capitalism.” He was calling attention, in a series of Facebook posts, to a local labor dispute with a twist that’s now gained the national spotlight. For the past several weeks, the non-unionized workers and customers of Market Basket, the small chain of New England grocery stores known for inexpensive prices, have been fiercely protesting the board’s ouster of CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Now, aisles are going empty, registers have closed. Supply trucks full of food sit near loading docks, unable to offload their rotting cargos.

While the backstory to the current situation approaches near-Shakespearean levels of complexity and intrigue—involving strong-arm tactics, brutal grabs for power, and an intricate family feud between cousins with nearly the same name—it’s a simpler narrative that people are rallying around. Arthur T., or “Artie T.,” as he’s affectionately called, has over the years become renowned among Market Basket employees for supporting high wages and good benefits, and for offering a profit-sharing program that effectively treats workers as minor shareholders. As Reich put it, Arthur T. had been fired because “he treated his employees and customers too well.”

I'll Be Short by Robert B. ReichThe notion of community accountability permeating these posts is something Reich wrote about in I’ll Be Short: Essentials for a Decent Working Society. That these ideas have only gained in relevance since Reich wrote them over a decade ago is evidence both of Reich’s foresight as well as the stalled economic policies that have kept much of the working class teetering at the brink of financial devastation. For a time, Market Basket seemed the exception, with lower prices than Walmart, higher employee salaries, and a stunning profitability. It was a classic example of the kind of company Reich imagines in I’ll Be Short, one that remains firmly centered on the “moral core” that America was founded upon, and playing a vital role in Reich’s larger blueprint for creating a thriving national economy:

First, as companies do better, their employees should, too. Profitable businesses should do everything possible to keep people employed instead of laying them off. They should provide employees with health and retirement benefits, and help them upgrade their skills.

Second, jobs should pay enough to lift a family out of poverty. This requires an adequate minimum wage indexed to inflation, coupled with a sufficiently generous earned-income tax credit. Poorer families can also be encouraged to save through plans matching the dollars they put away with public dollars or refundable tax credits. And when the job falls through or isn’t available, families need to be able to count on adequate income assistance and health care. Unemployment insurance (designed for an old economy where people were laid of temporarily during downturns and then got the old job back again on the upturn) should be replaced by a reemployment system emphasizing new skills for new jobs.

Third, all of us should have full opportunity to make the most of our God-given talents and abilities. That means good care and early-childhood education for all children, high-quality K through 14 (including universal access to at least two years of public education beyond today’s high school), affordable colleges and universities, and ample opportunities for lifelong learning. It also means no one should be discriminated against because of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

These principles aren’t “liberal” or “conservative.” They’re at the moral core of America. They’re as important to economic growth as they are to social equity. Businesses can’t be productive without skilled and healthy workers. Companies can’t do well over the long term unless they act responsibly toward their employees and communities. Consumers won’t buy much unless they feel some economic security about the future. Our economy can be successful only if all people have the chance to make the most of their abilities.

The path for Market Basket’s employees won’t be easy. Facing lost wages, and a potential sale to an international conglomerate, the future remains uncertain. As Reich noted, solidarity, though difficult, is the only way back to a more equitable situation. And, as the nation continues its debates over minimum wage, skyrocketing CEO compensation, and the shrinking middle class, how this one struggle plays out could have lasting impact on other issues of fair pay for years to come.