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Why the Market Basket saga matters to all Americans

The Market Basket saga is far more important than the fate of one ousted CEO

For the last several weeks, a massive worker strike has taken place across the Boston-area at the Market Basket grocery store chain. Unlike the recent nationwide fast food strikes, Market Basket workers aren’t risking their livelihoods for higher wages or for better benefits. They’re putting everything on the line to bring back their recently ousted CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, who was given the boot by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, the majority shareholder in the company, after a protracted family squabble.

Yes, you read that right. Hundreds, if not thousands, of American workers are walking the streets in protest, putting the economic security of their families at risk, to bring back their boss.

It sounds like a fairy tale. But Arthur T. was no average boss. Under his direction, Market Basket full-time workers started at $12 per hour and could earn upward of $40,000 in salary if they stuck with the company for a number of years.

In addition, as Esquire reports, the company paid “its roughly 19,000 workers yearly bonuses that often equal up to several months worth of salary” and invested “the equivalent of 15 percent of every paycheck into a retirement plan.”

“Solid pay. A boss who cares. It’s not exactly a magic formula,” Callum Borchers of the Boston Globe wrote in the early stages of the protest.

It isn’t just workers who are happy. Market Basket customers are as loyal as they come — and have helped enforce a regional boycott of the company in solidarity with Arthur T. At the start of 2014, a time when food prices rose drastically throughout the country, Arthur T. cut prices on most goods at his stores by 4%, even though Market Basket was already known for offering some of the cheapest prices in town.

For those out there who hear “cheap prices” and assume poor quality, you’re wrong. My family lives in the Boston area. Last summer, when I flew home to visit, I was greeted from my travel with an incredible, seemingly home-cooked, live Maine lobster dinner. When I chided my mother for going through the trouble and expense of such an endeavor, she gently corrected me.

“Market Basket,” she told me. “Lobster is $3.99 per pound. No big deal. They cooked it and everything.”

Yet Market Basket still manages to bring in $4.6 billion in annual revenue from its 71 stores.

Arthur S. was apparently unsatisfied with that number. Despite being among the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, he wants more.

Market Basket under Arthur T. was everything the Occupy movement said American business could be. Its executives are rich, its workers fairly compensated, and its customers satisfied. The company is living proof that low worker pay is not a matter of economic necessity, it’s a choice rooted in greed. If a regional grocery store chain can pay workers fairly, offer discount prices, and still make billions, that means the retail monoliths of the world such as Wal-Mart should have no problem doing the same. Companies such as Wal-Mart choose not to pay their workers fairly, and claim false poverty when pressured to improve their workers’ lots.

The Market Basket saga is far more important than the fate of one ousted CEO. It’s about the future of American capitalism. So long as Market Basket exists in its current state, any argument against guaranteeing a living wage to American workers rings demonstrably false. The company was a beacon for how American business can and should be run. We should all be voicing our support to keep it that way.

Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.

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