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August 09. 2014 9:16PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Market Basket blues - Who will broker the Treaty of Tewksbury?


 


 


 

A TISKET, a tasket, what's to become of Market Basket?

Since watching "Dear Market Basket" by the SuperSecretProject on YouTube, I've had the hip-hop melody buzzing in my head, the soundtrack to the story of the summer. Nearly 70,000 people have checked it out since the video debuted a couple of weeks ago - big numbers for a spoof about a supermarket that does business exclusively in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine.

If only the real story were as funny as the video. There's not much to laugh about when people no longer can go to work and draw a paycheck.

In New Hampshire alone, Market Basket has at least 8,000 reasons to resolve the family feud that soon could erase what's left of the brand's goodwill. That's how many part-time workers got notices last week that they would no longer be getting any hours.

The company's corporate chiefs in Tewksbury, Mass., said the workers were not being laid off. The store managers say they were doing what their bosses told them to do: reduce hours based on how many people (next to none) are shopping at the chain's 71 stores.

Semantics and strategy. The workers in the middle are pawns in a chess game between warring factions of a family that has enough money to buy every one of its employees a gold-plated shopping cart and still have hundreds of millions left for beachfront mansions, country club estates and overseas adventures.

If only this story were just about money and greed. It's about cousins who hate each other. About now, it looks like Arthur S. won't be ready to sell Arthur T. his family's side of the company until the stores look like Building 19 did before the bankrupt discounter sold its last flannel shirt for $3.99.

If Market Basket as we know it collapses and is revived by Hannaford or some other outside interest, sliced and diced, revamped, rebranded, whatever, life will go on. Market Basket shoppers honoring a boycott will continue to shop elsewhere, and an upstart that helped drive down local grocery prices will vanish. The workers will draw unemployment until they get picked up by another grocery store, or like some Stop & Shop and Shaw's veterans have done recently, open up their own meat markets and shops.

And the memory of Arthur T. Demoulas - championed as a Greek god on one employee's picket last week - will fade. Remember him? He's the benevolent dictator who inspired such admiration among the rank-and-file that employees felt better off under his care than under that of a union. The CEO who expanded a grocery's chain's footprint during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, treated his employees well, shared some of the riches with them and beat the other guys on price.

Wall Street hates that kind of thing. Where's the shareholder value in sharing the riches with someone other than them? For a private company that can chart its own destiny and understands its greatest power is its employees, that value is, of course, priceless. Unless you're ready to cash out.

One grocery consultant last week compared Arthur T. to Santa Claus. So far, it looks like Christmas in July has come and gone without a reason to celebrate. .

Mike Cote is business editor. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.



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