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How Market Basket workers are fighting greed

By Sally Kohn
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Workers from Market Basket are protesting and calling for their ex-CEO to be reinstated
  • Sally Kohn: Market Basket, until it changed CEO recently, has been a great place to work
  • She says like Occupy Wall Street, Market Basket workers want shared prosperity
  • Kohn: But current leaders of Market Basket are greedy and cater to shareholders

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Here's something you don't see every day: The 99% demonstrating in support of the 1%. But that's exactly what's been happening for several weeks all around New England at Market Basket grocery stores.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

In 1916, Athanasios and Efrosini Demoulas, who immigrated to the United States from Greece, opened a grocery store in Lowell, Massachusetts. Almost a century later, the family has expanded it to a chain of 71 supermarkets across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

In 2008, Anthanasios and Efrosini's grandson Arthur T. Demoulas was elected president of the Market Basket board. By all accounts, Arthur T., as he is known, presided over a very successful and happy company. Not only did Market Basket continue to expand and reap profits — generating $4 billion in revenues in 2012 — but workers have thrived as well.

Full-time clerks start at $12 an hour. Cashiers with experience can earn over $40,000 a year. And managers can easily make into the six figures.

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Keep in mind that's in a nation where the average annual salary for grocery store cashiers is $21,370 and the national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

The company also has a generous retirement plan, matching 15% of annual salary to employee retirement funds. What's more, workers up and down the supply chain receive good bonuses throughout the year.

All this and Market Basket is affordable for customers, with prices regularly 10% to 20% lower than competitors. The company is profitable in an industry known for low profit margins, and has given $500 million in dividends to the nine family shareholders over the past decade.

In other words, at a time when corporate executives and wealthy investors regularly try to argue that companies cannot pay workers well and be successful in generating profits, Market Basket has been an impressive and stunning example to the contrary. Market Basket has been a good company all around -- until recently, when things changed.

So what happened? Well, the family board switched sides, ousted Arthur T. and installed his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas as president.

One of the first acts under Arthur S. was to distribute $250 million in profits to the nine family shareholders, what a Boston Globe editorial called "an uncharacteristic act of greed for a firm known for its generous treatment of its workers and concern for price-conscious shoppers."

There have been other ominous signs that Arthur S. and his allies plan to push profit at all costs -- at the expense of workers and the values of the company. And so in an unprecedented mobilization, managers and workers have protested at Market Baskets across New England, calling for their beloved CEO Artie T. to be reinstated.

Last week, more than 6,000 Market Basket workers and managers joined in a peaceful march outside the company's headquarters in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. If you go to any Market Basket store around New England right now, you're likely to find employees and even some customers holding up signs protesting the new executive and supporting the ousted Artie T. Employees are also using social media to get their message out, using hashtags like #MarketBasket.

Of course, if you go inside a Market Basket you're not likely to find much; even the warehouse workers are on strike. These protests aren't being organized by unions; after all, Market Basket workers aren't unionized. They're being organized by the employees and managers of the company.

Already, eight managers have been fired for helping lead the protests. But the protests continue. As a result, the company is reportedly losing $1 million a day.

A reporter interviewed one of the Market Basket workers at a protest. "I have a friend who works at Walmart," she said, "and I asked her, would they ever do this for their CEO?" The woman laughed. But what has become of capitalism in America is not funny: the extreme greed of a few overrunning the best interests of everyone, including workers, communities and a healthy growing economy.

Just like the Occupy Wall Street protesters before them, the Market Basket workers are not protesting against capitalism. They're protesting for a certain kind of capitalism, a capitalism that works for owners as well as for workers and communities. It's the kind of capitalism that has made Market Basket a successful business for generations, the kind of capitalism that once meant shared prosperity and opportunity in America.

The Market Basket managers and cashiers and bag boys joining in protest aren't just holding signs, they're also holding the aspirations of the majority of Americans. Those of us concerned about the growing economic inequality in America don't want to "eat the rich" — we simply don't want the rich to chew up and spit out everyone else.

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