August 4, 2014

Viewpoint: Market Basket feud highlights value of listening to workers

Gary Chaison

As the workers of Market Basket's 71-store grocery chain continue with their demonstrations and consumer boycott against the company, we have to ask: What this is really all about?

Superficially, it might seem like a messy family fight. The employees are demanding that Arthur T. Demoulas, the past president and CEO, get his job back after he was fired by a board of directors led by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. This "War of the Arthurs" seems like a made-for-TV movie with lots of family and boardroom intrigue and the kinder, gentler Arthur T. vs. the business-as-usual Arthur S. To add to all the melodrama we even have martyrs - the company fired eight demonstrating workers. (The board later reportedly offered amnesty for workers who return to their jobs.)

But let's look at the Market Basket dispute at deeper levels. First, on the managerial level, the company seems to be doing everything wrong: firing popular demonstrators after firing a popular CEO, and forgetting about the importance of positive public relations and consumer loyalty in hyper-competitive retailing. The consumer boycott has proven very effective.

But despite management's many failings, we can expect the workers to eventually drift back for fear of doing irreparable harm to the company, jeopardizing their jobs, and emptying their own bank accounts. All management has to do is reinstate the eight fired workers, and hope that such a gesture, rather than reinstating Arthur T., will satisfy the workers and demonstrators and make them feel as if they've won.

At the deepest level, there is much more to this dispute. In this time of high unemployment, it's incredibly risky for workers to stay off their jobs and economically harm their employer. Arthur T. might have been a likable and benevolent CEO, but is he worth losing jobs over?

The Market Basket dispute is rife with worker resentment and insecurity. Employees who feel they have no say in the top-level decisions that affect them are hoping their collective voices will be heard.

In essence, the Market Basket dispute is all about the expression of the workers' collective voice. More than a fight between cousins, or compendium of management missteps, it's about frustrated and dissatisfied workers demanding to be heard. If management chooses to ignore these voices, they will not go silent. Minimizing or ignoring the workers' feelings and insecurities, and failing to develop ways in which they can communicate directly with management, is simply asking for more Market Basket battles.

Gary Chaison is professor of industrial relations at Clark University's Graduate School of Management.

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