If you’re from the Northeast U.S. like me, your summer news cycle was likely taken up by the Market Basket protests. If you are from anywhere else, you probably have no fucking idea what I’m talking about, so I’ll try to get you up to speed.
A major grocery store chain known as Demoulas Market Basket fired it’s CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas. Because he was such a nice guy, all the employees rallied around him, refusing to stock shelves and load trucks even while technically showing up for work. Eventually, customer boycotts kicked in, and the empty stores were accompanianed by empty parking lots. There were rallies, pushback from the new owners, firings, and other crazy drama. Eventually, the board of the company agreed to a buyout from Arthur T. and everyone rejoiced. He is now in control of the company once again.
The whole time I watched the drama unfold I couldn’t help but compare it to the largely failed Occupy protests that happened a couple years ago. Even though I supported the vague idea of what Occupy was trying to do, it suffered from a lack of focus that caused it to pretty much do nothing except make some teenagers feel like they were affecting the world. While these protests were generally about similar things (labor vs. big business), there were a couple major differences that made Market Basket’s protest actually… well, work.
1) There Was A Clear Good Vs. Evil Story
Reading he history behind this company is like watching a fucking episode of Game of Thrones. There is so much family feuding that needs to be explained in order for any of this to make sense. Luckily there is a handy graphic you can check out, but the quick version is this: There are two sides of the Demoulas family that have been fighting for decades over control of the company. On one side of the coin we have Arthur T who became CEO in 2008 but was part of the company for years under his father, Telemachus haha holy shit that’s really his name! On the other side we have, confusingly, Arthur S., the “evil cousin” who regained control after Arthur T (good Arthur) was forced out by the Board of Directors. Even just by looking at their pictures I’m sure you can figure out which is which.
Arthur T. was nice to his employees: he paid them fairly and legitimately cared about their well-being. Under his tenure, sales and stores grew until they were making 17 quintillion dollars per second (hey Wal-Mart, take notes here. You can do both).
Arthur S. and the board, on the other hand, made themselves look like greedy corporate assholes every step of the way. They first reacted to the protests by firing a handful of managers who helped organize the whole thing and did in in the dickiest possible way: couriers waited outside their houses with pink slips. These seven people had hundreds of years of combined experience at the company. When the workers still didn’t back down, the board planned career fairs and cut all the part timers, including a 94-year-old bagger.
Their nuclear option was to close 80% of the stores and just fucking fire everyone. And one of the new CEO’s brought into replace Arthur T. was named James Gooch. GOOCH! I couldn’t have come up with a better name for a Spy Kids bad guy if I tried.
We love a good hero vs. villain story because it’s easy to follow. And so much of law and business resides in gray areas that it’s not too often we get something that is this clear cut. Arthur T.’s side of the family isn’t even 100% innocent, and the employees rallied around him. Think about how crazy this is. The employees are non-union, and they were risking their careers for a family of billionaires. What did this guy do, buy everybody a boat every time he stepped foot in a store?
Occupy Wall Street was a battle between the middle class and….a street. Or it might as well have been. They were mad at BANKS and CORPORATIONS and NASDAQS but didn’t specify who. Nobody can get behind a complicated cause that has a faceless enemy unless you’re just running a hate group. Sometimes it’s all about how you frame something. It’s why the War on Terror never ends. “Terror” isn’t a person. You can’t defeat it. You need a Cobra Commander. If they had dubbed it “The War on Osama Bin Laden” it would have ended three years ago.
2) They Had a Clear Attainable Goal
Even when those middle managers were fired, they still stood behind the root rallying cry: they just wanted Arthur T. back. That was it. That was what everyone who was part of the movement wanted, and it was all they were asking.
When he was reinstated, they came back to work, simple as that.
Occupy was famous for being so democratic that it was disorganized. There were no leaders and no central core tenants. Ask 50 people what they wanted to see the movement accomplish and you woulda got 49 different answers, 6 drum circles, and some guy ranting about lizard people. They praised that aspect of the movement from within, but from the outside it made it look like a confusing mess. What did they actually want to do? What was the point? If every Bank CEO stepped down would that have ended it? It was a War on Terror.
Everything in life is organized into hierarchies because that’s the easiest way to think of things. Pick a leader. Write some shit down. And they don’t have to act like robots, but for fuck’s sake make sure everyone else knows why they are there.
3) They Hit ‘Em Where It Hurt
As I said before, these people were risking their entire well-being in support of Arthur T. By walking out on their duties, the employees of Market Basket were costing the chain $10 million a day. Pressure was mounting for the board to make a decision about selling the company to Arthur T, or else risk the chance that the company’s value would plummet to nothing. Market Basket supporters were playing a very dangerous game of chicken, and it worked because it hit the bastards right in the wallet.
Occupy did nothing more than cause a scene and capture the attention of desperate cable newspeople. They were literally at the doorstep of their supposed enemies, but I can’t help but imagine them in their solid-gold offices laughing their asses off. Because none of it mattered. The protesters were just taking up space and talking. Imagine if they had got a million people to stop using their bank. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s unfortunately what it would have taken for a movement so minuscule compared to the organizations they were fighting against to actually cause social change. And that was Occupy’s biggest downfall: most people realized that no matter how long they camped out there, nothing would have ever changed.
The Market Basket incident was a victory for the middle class, and as a former employee myself I’m happy to go back to shopping at the best grocery store around. And here’s the most important lesson we should take away from this is this: If you want to alter the shitty system you need to disrupt it from within.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get some milk.