Market Basket employees and customers are celebrating a successful job action that led to the return of ousted CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas. This dispute dominated news in Massachusetts, became a national story, and blew up social media sites. From a lawyer’s perspective, what the heck was so unique about it and what does it mean for employer/employee relationships? Here’s a few thoughts:
- The employees controlled the conversation through Social Media. Market Basket employees flocked to Facebook, Twitter, and used hashtags such as #MarketBasketStrong. They effectively used social media to control the message, gain support from co-workers, customers, politicians, and the general public. The company was old school. It didn’t have an active social media platform. It stood still while employees were positioning their message to great effect. Why do we care? Social media is the field where the game is being played, and companies ignore that fact to their peril.
- Company Employment Decisions were Publicly Scrutinized. Let’s face it: most company disciplinary actions take place behind closed doors. Supervisors, human resource managers and company lawyers discuss employee terminations and other disciplinary actions in private. The employee is most often informed in a face to face private conversation. What was unusual here? The company’s employment decisions such as firing managers played out in the court of public opinion and were relentlessly scrutinized. The company lost control of its ability to keep its disciplinary actions private.
- The Attorney General Set up a Hotline. These days employees use internet searches to find out about their rights. Some may call an employment lawyer like me or call the Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division or the EEOC or the MCAD to find out about their rights. But a dedicated hotline to answer Market Basket employee questions? That’s a management nightmare right there.
- Employees View Market Basket as Their Company. Much has been said about the loyalty and obvious dedication of the Market Basket workers. What’s behind that oft-described loyalty? The employees personally identify with the company’s mission and view Market Basket as their company. The photo above from the Reading Market Basket says it all. They don’t work for the company – they are the company. Because of the company culture, Market Basket has many long term employees, some who worked there for decades. I’m stating the obvious when I say that many Massachusetts workers know that in their company culture they can be laid off, restructured out, or fired at a moment’s notice. “Sink or swim” and survival is the name of the game in many companies. Loyalty is currency at Market Basket and that’s not always the case.
- Non-Union Employees Successfully Used Collective Action to Have Their Voice Heard. It was a high wire act with no net for many of the Market Basket employees who went on strike for weeks. The employees had one demand: bring back Arthur T. Demoulas. Their collective action, which required personal sacrifice and no small measure of focused determination was ultimately successful. Market Basket employees enlisted customer support, political support and the support of the general public. As one friend commented: “We all root for the underdog.” The improbable success of the non-union cashiers, warehouse workers, deli clerks and other Market Basket employees who banded together for their cause has been described as “unprecedented.”
- What’s Next for Employer/Employee Relations? My comments on workers realizing that they may have more power than they thought are in a reflection article published in the Boston Globe. Market Basket employees used social media proactively to spread their message and gain support. The employees played offense and the company played defense. We can anticipate more employees proactively using social media such as Face Book and Twitter to gain support for their demands. We can expect to continue to see the use of social media level the playing field for employees and to give employees a greater voice in their working conditions. It remains to be seen whether other non-union collective job actions will be as successful for employees given differing company cultures, workplaces and customer support. But one thing is for sure: with the resounding success of the Market Basket job action, this is a watershed moment in Massachusetts in employer/employee relations.
Maura Greene is a Boston employment lawyer. She has been selected to the 2014, 2013 list of Massachusetts Super Lawyers. She is AV-rated, which is the highest rating an individual employee may receive. She has been named by Fortune Magazine and The Boston Globe as one of Boston’s top rated employment lawyers. Her office is located at Six Beacon Street, Suite 205, Boston, MA 02108. She may be reached at 617-936-1580 or at [email protected]. Call us, we’re friendly!