NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

Market Basket Symposium: NECC professors on the context of protest in America

The Market Basket Symposium took place on Friday, Oct. 24 from noon 1:30 p.m. at the Hartleb technology center. There were four guest speakers: Stephen Russell, Stephen Slaner, Chris Mackin and Crystal Pringle who spoke about different issues regarding the Bread and Roses strike, the Occupy movement, and strikes that took place over the summer at Market Basket.

First to speak was Professor Stephen Russell, who gave his insight on the Bread and Roses strike. It took place in Lawrence during the peak of the United States textile industry during the early 1900s. “Throughout the history of Lawrence you see a general trend to make people work harder for less money, because the textile industries were very competitive and the places where the owners would find the most opportunity to cut costs was of course in labor,” said Russell.

In 1882, the strike took place within the Pacific mills. Mostly women were rebelling against having to tend to more machines for even less money. “In the end the strike did not work out that well, but it did have an important effect in creating this idea that there could be a strike, and second getting the members of the women who worked in the mills to understand that they were a community and that together they could take some direct action,” said Russell.

The theme of the symposium is just that: communities taking direct action in order to influence change in the treatment of those who work hard for too little, and to  inspire change to those who did not believe it possible to as a community take immediate and direct action.

The next speaker was Professor Stephen Slaner, on the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement began in 2011 in New York City in Zucotti Park. Among the Occupiers’ central concerns were the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, and the New York protests inspired a global movement.

“On a personal note I first heard about occupy when a student of mine informed that she would have to miss class because she was going to a demonstration in New York City,” Slaner said. “The demonstration was called by a counter cultural magazine. It quickly turned into an encampment and became known as Occupy Wall Street. As it spread to other cities in the U.S., including Boston, and then around the world, it was possible to go to an encampment and see what was going on.”

Slaner has first hand experience, as he visited one of the protests. “I went to the Boston encampment along with some students from NECC we saw various tents, a library, a clothes tent, a medical tent, a kitchen, even a spiritual tent. Some people lived in the tents while others walked around the space.”

“It really seemed as though we were in a time warp, and had been transported back to the 60s, like something out of a science fiction novel. It was really like the 60s had come back. The movement was directed against what the movement called the 1 percent, and for the rest of us, the 99 percent, and that slogan really caught on. The background of course the financial crisis, and the bailout of the banks.

“One of the slogans was ‘banks got bailed out, we got sold out.’ It seemed as though capitalism was finally breaking down or at least in serious trouble and the occupy movement represented and alternative in some sense. Secondly, there were supposed to be no leaders. In the general assembly common to all encampments, anyone could speak and because of the restrictions on sound systems, there was a mic check and the audience would repeat the speakers’ remarks,” said Slaner.

“The focus was not on specific position so much as the expression of a generalized discontent, with the injustice and inequality of the present system. The physical and social arrangements of the encampments were meant to serve as a model for the kind of society that the protesters were speaking with the slogan ‘be the change you’re working for.’ Of the various definitions of occupy in the dictionary the closest one might be ‘enter, take control of, and stay in the building illegally and often forcibly especially as a form of protest,’” said Slaner.

What does this have to do with Market Basket? Well, the same principles apply, the idea of a community banding together to influence and inspire change over a social, economic, and even consumer injustice for both employees and customers is what took hold over the summer of 2014. The movement of the Market Basket strikes did not stop with outrages employees but took hold with the loyal customers too.

Chris Mackin, who identifies himself as an observer of Market Basket, got involved as a part time academic teacher who writes about workplace issues, his primary work is in the field of employee ownership; he helps people start businesses. Mackin’s involvement in the Market Basket strike began on July 17 when he picked up the Boston Globe in Cambridge and read that the senior management of Market Basket were threatening to walk out of their jobs if their demand to restore Arthur T. Demoulas as CEO was not met. “It seemed to me to merit getting in the car and seeing this in person. I did that, and came up to an almost empty parking lot at the Tewksbury headquarters of Market Basket. Sure enough at 4:30 p.m. about eight or 10 men in white shirts and ties marched out of the headquarters of Market Basket, looking relieved, looking proud, looking a little confused not quite knowing what the next step was. There were a smattering of people around there, reporters and myself that talked to them, asked them what this was all about.” Said Mackin.

What transpired next was the start of a lengthy strike to restore Arthur T. Demoulas as CEO. “The next morning at 11 a.m., 2000 people were in the parking lot of the Tewksbury Headquarters. In the beginning what were three major protests, and the world woke up and the country began to pay attention to what was going on here in northern Massachusetts,” said Mackin.

The Market Basket strikes share multiple characteristics of the Bread and Roses strikes in Lawrence as well as the Occupy movement but also is quite different in its own respects. The Bread and Roses strike was primarily against the tyrannical employer; the Occupy movement faced a more ambiguous antagonist — it was a protest against the capitalist class as a whole. “A turning point with Occupy was when the edgy youth were joined by teachers and nurses and moms and dads and people pushing carriages who agreed with them. It was joined because something was in the air that seemed right. This Market Basket strike is a definitive example of what we call direct action. That is exactly what it was, it was direct action by people who did not ask permission by authority. People said, ‘No, we are going to tell you you’re wrong, and we are willing to risk our jobs because of it,’” said Mackin.

What makes Market Basket stand apart from the aforementioned movements was the involvement of the customers alongside the employees. “What was particularly wonderful about this was how the customers joined in with the workers, and this was led by senior management people. These were people making close to $100,000 who had been with the company a long time no protection, the next day with 2000 people there were a smattering of customers with hand made signs, immediately after that customers joined in and it grew, and it grew, and it grew. My observation of it, what was interesting about this case was the extent to which everybody including the customers were using the language of ownership and were saying these are our stores, we’re the real owners here. We’re the real owners, they’re just the financial owners (in relevance to Arthur S.) we’re the natural owners and it’s the people here who really own the stores.”  Said Mackin.

Long time vendor to Market Basket Jim Fantini was present during the symposium as well and gave him insight on what happened during the strikes. He also was an architect of the Facebook page that the general public followed to educate themselves on what was happening. “When we said we are Market Basket at the start I think we thought we were Market Basket but we realized that what happened here was scary for every single one of us. We didn’t really have a strategy we made strategy as we went along. Initially as we took action we had to believe that the customer would stand by us and understand and hopefully have some patience with us. Never in a million years did we think that the customers would make it their own battle and boycott the stores. Without the customer support we wouldn’t have gotten this done.”

Fantini took a huge risk in his cessation to supply Market Basket, but the gamble payed off. “While this was so scary, we think looking back it was the best thing we’ve ever had happen to this company,” said Fantini.

Crystal Pringle, a student at NECC, is a paying customer of Market Basket who took her own action to be a voice in the Market Basket strike. “This summer was so intense. Words do not come close to being able to describe how emotional, and the roller coaster of how intense this was. Unfortunately we live in an age where we have this mutated hybridized version of corporate media and yellow journalism and that kind of dictates what gets out to you guys, and unless you were right there you have no idea.”

Pringle got involved with the strikes because she could not find passion to ignite something to inspire her in her regular classes at NECC. She felt stagnant and apathetic toward her academics until this revolution came along and sparked her interest. “Market Basket changed my life. The people that I met, the people that I was involved with, people that I hadn’t met but was involved with, they changed me forever and I am indebted to these amazing individuals in this corporation and in order to come here and give you an insider perspective without hidden agendas.” Said Pringle.

Pringle focused on two ideals of the strike that she felt were overlooked by mainstream media. “I want to focus on two facets  that I feel have been overlooked, misconstrued,  or outright slandered  in the significance that each have had and continues to have for Market Basket. I hope to define what a family means.” For Pringle the word family has a resonating impact on her influence in the strikes. The other facet that was in Pringle’s eyes was overlooked was as she called a secret ingredient, was people caring about people. “Let me tell you what made a difference, people caring about people from the top down. That’s where the difference was.”

“I got involved when I was about three weeks away from ending this horrific semester, after hours and hours of slamming my head into some triangles and waiting for some mathematical knowledge and sense to come to me, I decided to take a break and went for some mindless entertainment on Facebook, and saw a picture of Market Basket, and their shelves were empty and it woke me up,” said Pringle.

“In that moment there lit a fire, there’s something here about New England where we’re educated consumers. I was not the only one who started reading everything. I’m not gonna be told a story by a corporation. I discovered that I learned more in those few days about the grocery store that I shop at than I had in school all year.”

Pringle became actively involved as the days grew hotter in July, she decided to take a bunch of water to the protesters outside, to the Market Basket stores in her area. “When I went to go deliver water to the people in Plaistow they were well stocked, they had tents and music and they had all this water and I brought them this case and the gratitude I was met with, you don’t see that and it floored me.”

In essence the family Pringle describes grew from senior management to employees, and eventually even vendors and consumers. “What we saw, we saw a family of vendors, took a huge blow and walked away and said I’m not selling to you, I will not help you. Two million customers, 97 percent of customers said nope, I will not walk through those doors. It was amazing — associates, not unionized laborers, came together and said they weren’t gonna do this. There was plenty of food on the shelves, I was there 40 hours a week and I didn’t work there. I was there, there was food on the shelves at a much cheaper price but people still drove way out of their way and payed more money for their food and it wasn’t because they had to, it was because it was what was right. They were a part of this family.”

Pringle illustrated how grateful and welcoming the protestors were, and how much they not only felt like a family but essentially were a family of people standing up for what they believed in. The outstanding support that trickled down from senior management, from employees and vendors, to customers that inspired people caring about one another and doing what was right is what made the Market Basket strikes so successful.

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