Film Portraying Civic Fight To Preserve Grocery Stores Inspires, Entertains


A dramatic boycott by tens of thousands of grocery store employees and their customers to preserve store traditions in New England provides the story line for the compelling new documentary We the People: The Market Basket Market Basket Effect Film PosterEffect, which was screened with expert commentators this week at a special showing in Washington, DC.

The movie effectively conveyed the passion and drama of a regional battle last year that energized employees and customers of the family-run Market Basket chain in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Discussing the film's importance Nov. 9 were New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, Director Nick Buzzell, and Producer Ted Leonsis, a major high tech and entertainment executive (shown blow, from left to right).

Also speaking were Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and event host Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, which described the film as a "vivid and thorough portrayal of the most memorable labor protest in recent American history." Photos of the event are via the Facebook pages of Buzzell's NBTV Studios.

Our report here on the film provides what we hope is an entertaining break from our normal fare, which focuses heavily on grim realities from around the world unearthed by investigative reporting. But readers interested in solving problems can learn from the reform techniques illustrated by the movie. The gist: If you care about something get involved, using one of the ways that are proven effective and need not be difficult.

The Market Basket Effect sympathetically traces the early success of two immigrant brothers who started a butcher/grocery business nearly a century ago, beginning in the factory community of Lowell, northwest of Boston. The stores operated for many years under the family name DeMoulas Supermarkets.

Maggie Hassan, Nick Buzzell, Ted LeonsisIn recent years, the family evolved the trade name to "Market Basket" and expanded to 75 locations serving some two million customers via a company valued at nearly three billion dollars.

The film portrays recent success as occurring in part from the passionate commitment by longtime CEO Arthur T. DeMoulas to his family's tradition of good wages for employees, low prices for customers, and celebration of the grocery business as, in effect, a civic activity and not simply a business or chore.

A subtext is a the Greek-American community's traditional expertise in food, originally developed in many small stores and restaurants, and celebrated more privately in family and church circles. 

The result of the high-wage and low customer price policy? Strong worker and community loyalty.

Perhaps predictable also was that some heirs — ultimately constituting a majority of shares — resented CEO decisions that failed to keep shareholder income as high as industry norms that follow a different retail store formula, such as Walmart's relatively low wages and benefits. In 1990, some family members also filed suit accusing the CEO of fraud.

Most of the movie vividly portrays how the vast majority of Market Basket's 25,000 employees and then customers boycotted the stores after the board fired “Arthur T.” during the summer of 2014. This created a financial crisis for the company owners as well as a ripple effect threatening other parts of the regional business supply chain.

Boycott supporters and independent experts explained in the film that many of workers and shoppers feared that new management would undercut worker pay and raise food prices. Transition to more standard corporate models, or asset stripping and sale of the facilities at worst, would further damage communities that had already seen massive job losses from factory operations off-shored during recent decades.

 

No one really knew at the outset how the community battle against new management would work out.

But Buzzell, CEO of the New York City-based NBTV Studios, knew that the story promised drama and importance. A native of New Hampshire, Buzzell set out for New England to record the boycott story as it happened last year.

In one of those fortunate connections that make big projects practical, Buzzell learned that Washington-based entrepreneur Ted Leonsis had roots in Lowell. Leonsis was a pioneering top executive at American Online (AOL) and is now an investor whose properties include the Washington Wizards basketball team, Washington Capitals hockey team and control over the Verizon Center, the major sports and concert venue in metro Washington, DC.

Neera Tanden and Ted Leonsis Nov. 9, 2015Leonsis, an American of Greek descent, remembers working as a checkout “bagger” when he was age 14 at one of the Demoulas stores in Lowell. He  appreciates also the stores' positive impact on his community and the importance of the six-week boycott last year.

His own movie company SnagFilms helped back the production, which vividly combined scenes from the protest with expert analysis under the overall narration of Michael Chiklis. Commentators included former President Bill Clinton, as well as Market Basket employees at all levels, plus reporters and academics. Several pithy remarks came from a Greek Orthodox priest who assessed the developments with both compassion and alarm.

This week's film screening and a related panel and reception were at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington's downtown. The theater is around the corner from Ford's Theater and just five blocks from the Verizon Center that hosts the Leonsis professional sports teams.

The movie's significance was underscored, in a sense, by unrelated activities of the evening's participants.

Tanden, shown at right with Leonsis at the reception before the screening, was conducting the next day A Conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at her office's auditorium. Separately, the Washington Post reported Nov. 9 that Leonsis was expanding his entertainment holdings by seeking a stake in the regional Comcast sports network spanning Washington and Baltimore.

Elizabeth WarrenWarren, the junior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, introduced the evening program by applauding the kind of effective community actions portrayed by The Market Basket Effect during an era of corporate mergers, asset-stripping and offshoring that leaves many families powerless.

New Hampshire’s governor Hassan, another Democrat, described her concerns last year in wondering how a long boycott could hurt others beyond store employees. She worried about suppliers and part-time employees financially hurt so long as store shelves were barren. The vast majority of Market Basket's 25,000 employees refused to return to work until the former CEO, Arthur T., returned to run the business.

The film had premiered at the Boston Film Festival in September. It is expected also to continue its showings in New England theaters, depending on local buzz.

Daniel KorschunAvailable also was a recent book, We Are Market Basket, written by Drexel University marketing professor Daniel Korschun and Lowell Sun reporter Grant Welken. Welkin wrote (sometimes in cooperation with fellow reporters) more than a hundred news stories about the boycott.

Beyond the film and book, part of the reason for our column today is to describe potential ways that we, as observers and reformers of whatever political persuasion, can participate in such civic debates and struggles.

Thanks to the web and its pioneers like Leonsis (who said he sent one of the world's first instant messages of its kind to his wife Lynn while working at AOL in 1993), one way get heard is to circulate messages via social media.

The boycott organizers used Facebook and other social media to react rapidly to events, including creation of a website We Are Market Basket to respond to a site created by the new management of the grocery stores. The store leaders reacted so slowly to the boycott that the We Are Market Basket book was published by the American Management Association as a case study.

Personal Take On Reform Strategies

The Market Basket story resonated with this editor for a couple reasons that help prompt the extended treatment here.

For one thing, my experiences with Greek-American relatives in Massachusetts have schooled and impressed me with the wonderfully strong community bonds in good times and bad that the film portrays in parallel situations.

It's this larger context that prompts this next segment in today's column.

All across the country, people wonder what to do about issues of concern. The 2016 presidential races illustrate the frustration of public and candidates alike. Candidates even of national stature complain they don't have the opportunity to share their ideas, even in nationally televised debates. Voters appear to be angry about problems, as rarely seen before, but few voters are confident of identifying solutions.

Ted Leonsis and Andrew Kreig Nov. 9, 2015My career evolution in Washington illustrates this pattern and I believe points to ways we can each advance our goals, whatever they are and whatever our capabilities.

The gist is to become aware and get involved. And the most effective way is to helping others advance shared goals, not simply complain or focus on our own pet solutions.

In my case, I worked as president/CEO from 1996 to 2008 of the Wireless Communications Association, whose goal was to foster a new wireless broadband industry with advanced applications in such diverse fields as education, public safety, and business.

Our WCA conventions occasionally featured George Vradenberg, one of the top visionaries working at AOL with Leonsis. WCA's headquarters (about seven blocks from the Penn Quarter area that Leonsis has helped transform) was in the same DC office building as the Center For American Progress. Its founding leader beginning in 2003 was Tanden's predecessor John Podesta, currently chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and previously chairman of the 2008 Obama transition team, among other posts. 

In 2008, I undertook a career change to research troubling issues in justice system that require reform. As became apparent, reform is needed in the larger political system because that system is ultimately responsible for courts, law enforcement, and everything else.

Learning more about these systems has been a revelation to me even late in my career, as evident in our columns on this site. These including a 28-part Readers Guide to the more than two thousand books on President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and what was clearly a cover-up by the Warren Commission.

For an annual conference on the Kennedy Assassination Nov. 20-22 at the Crowne Plaza Downtown Hotel in Dallas a few blocks from Kennedy's murder scene, the JFK Historical Group has scheduled me for a 75-minute address Nov. 21 on why the killing and cover-up still matter, especially to young people.

The short answer is that millions of pages of declassified documents and the otherwise unique investigative record of the JFK assassination provide unique, valuable evidence about the range of serious abuses and phony remedies possible now. Among them are the possibility that politicians might fear the same fate as Kennedy and that a similar cover-up might occur.

President Obama has privately mentioned such concerns, as has at least one top former advisor, University of California Law School at Berkeley then-Dean Christopher Edley. Edley wrote me about why Obama's transition advisors in late 2008 and early 2009 feared a "revolt" if the new president prosecuted CIA perpetrators of torture. Assassination or this "revolt" are just a sample of the dangers elected leaders might fear from powerful private networks with many tools, including surveillance techniques and influential media. Concocted scandal and other negative "news coverage" are legitimate threats also, as in-depth research indicates.  

Ed MarkeyThat background is context for the only awkward and perhaps regrettable moment I encountered during the Nov. 9 film reception. Among attendees was the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Ed Markey, a former House Commerce and Communications Committee Chairmen whom I had known, admired and supported during my time leading the wireless association.

A gregarious and often-outspoken politician known for leadership on some difficult issues before they become popular, the senator is shown at the reception talking to others in one of the NBTV film photos now on Facebook. Another one below left shows senator's face only partially visible while we conversed.

All this is to show that one path to civic advocacy can lead to discomfort. Is it necessary? You be the judge.

I mentioned Kennedy assassination research as one of the Justice Integrity Project's pursuits. But that's not the most engaging topic to broach to a political VIP from Massachusetts. The surviving members of the Kennedy family focus on the legacies of the late president and his brother Robert. They avoid engagement in the ongoing debates of researchers who believe JFK was killed from the front and RFK from the rear. Each claim contradicts official accounts still-accepted as authoritative by virtually all major media.

Moving briskly away from that topic, I asked the senator if he was moving to a position on a pending Senate resolution calling for release of the still-secret 28 pages of the 2002 Joint Senate-House Intelligence Committees report on the 9/11 attack. The Bush administration ordered secret the 28 pages that identified alleged funders of the 19 accused hijackers.

Andrew Kreig and Ed Markey at Nov. 9, 2015 Market Basket Effect receptionThe Senate bill (SB 1471) to make the report public has so far attracted three bipartisan supporters even though former Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-FL), a co-author of the report in 2002, has campaigned vigorously for its release, as have others that include 9/11 family survivors.

But the issue is considered too controversial for polite discussion in most circles. That's presumably because the report is reputed to document how U.S. "allies" working with the Saudi Arabian government financed hijackers causing 9/11 deaths and prompting so many Middle Eastern wars since.

Last June, our project argued in Rand Paul, 2 Other Senators: Expose Financiers Of 9/11 Hijackers that the stakes are so high for the American public regarding the suppressed report that no member of the Senate or House deserves re-election, no matter what their other policies, unless he or she has at least read such a momentous probe. House support for release of the secret report (H.R. 14) also has bipartisan support led by Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC), Stephen Lynch (D-MA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY).

The 28 pages are kept under tight guard at the Capitol under conditions that serve as an ongoing insult to any voter believes the Constitutional premise that elected leaders serve their constituents under a system of law. Those senators or representatives who even mention what's in the report are subject to imprisonment unless a few brave souls dare look at the findings and vote to release them to the public.

Meanwhile, wars proceed and domestic needs go unmet under the theory that preventing 9/11-type terrorism holds top governmental priority.

I did not get into any of that with the senator, or even intend to raise the topic until I started talking with him. There's never a good time to discuss inherently distasteful topics.

The senator was pleasant enough in responding with a comment that he planned to look into the report. That's progress, but still not much of a commitment 13 years after the joint Senate-House Committee filed its report. But one never knows when a senator hears enough about the same issue to take action. So, this story is included to show that any of us can raise such questions, whatever the issue and whoever the representative, so long as we do not become frozen with fear at risking an uncomfortable topic. 

Another tool of would-be reformers is more enjoyable and readily available. This is use social media or other channels to recommend the movies, books, articles, and speakers that we like. In that spirit, the Justice Integrity Project sent out four brief Twitter messages as follows. Each used symbols that enable individuals and organizations to augment the buzz they receive, for betterment of all: deserve.

  • Kudos to @MBasketEffect documentary creators! Thanks also to Center for American Progress hosts (@amprog) for great event in DC tonite
  • Inspiring new film: ‘The Market Basket Effect.’ Traces 25k grocery workers supporting embattled CEO against takeover. @MBasketEffect @amprog
  • Much enjoyed 'Market Basket Effect' overviews from @SenWarren, @GovernorHassan, @TedLeonsis, @Thenickbuzzell, @neeratanden #MarketBasketFilm!
  • Eager to buy @MBasketEffect DVD as gift. Did get book, "We Are #MarketBasket" by @SunGrantWelker @danielkorschun www.ow.ly/UtI0J

Why not do these things for films, books, and other things you care about? It's free and doesn't take much time. Even Leonsis, busy as he is, writes a brief daily blog: Ted's Take.

During the Republican debates Nov. 10, the candidates kept interrupting each other because they wanted more people to listen to them, as do many other Americans.

Yet many situations exist around us, like the Market Basket boycott, where our time may better spent by helping others disseminate worthy messages. 

 
 
Contact the author This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 
 

 

Related News Coverage

Nick Buzzell

WMUR (Boston), "We the People: The Market Basket Effect" screens in Boston Sunday, Stephanie Woods, Sept. 21, 2015. Documentary chronicles the 10-week supermarket standoff. A film about last year’s Market Basket boycott premiered in Boston Sunday night. We the People: The Market Basket Effect was shot in real time in the summer of 2014. The dispute began when the 71-store supermarket chain fired CEO Arthur T. Demoulas in June, setting off employee protests and a customer boycott. Some big names are attached to the film, including Lowell, Massachusetts native Michael Chiklis as the narrator and executive producers Nick and Michael Buzzell of New Hampshire (Nick Buzzell is shown at right).

"When you have a customer base with hard work, dedication, and loyalty sewn into their DNA, there was no other outcome, and they achieved it,” Nick Buzzell said. “We the People” was a last minute addition to the Boston Film Festival. “This is an unbelievable story, particularly with what's going on with the one percent and the 99 percent in America,” said producer Robert Friedman. The producers plan to roll out the documentary at theaters across New England over the next few months.

WCVB (Boston), Shoppers find empty shelves at Market Basket stores, William Martin, July 20, 2014.

WBUR (Boston), How Market Basket Can Right Its Course, Thomas Kochan, July 29, 2014. Dr. Thomas Kochan is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-director of MIT's Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research. The Market Basket saga continues. Unless there is a change of course, however, all parties — owners, employees and customers — will lose. There is an alternative path that could get employees and customers back quickly and restructure the company in ways that preserve its value and reputation for quality service. Following more than a week of dramatic protests by employees and customers against a new management team, a much-anticipated board of directors meeting on Friday, July 25, yielded five results. Four of them were announced after the meeting adjourned; the fifth, with the help of a newly hired public relations firm, was tacked on hours later. Market Basket owners and employees remain in a downward spiral. If not reversed, and soon, the result will be a substantial reduction in the value — if not the total liquidation — of the owners’ assets and the loss of many, if not all, employees’ jobs.

Huffington Post, Socially Conscious Documentary 'We the People: The Market Basket Effect' Reveals the Power of Peaceful Protest, Gregory Weinkauf, Sept. 22, 2015. "It's actually been one of those passion projects, a labor of love," says Nick Buzzell, a producer of the literally striking new documentary, We the People: The Market Basket Effect. In a nation still reeling and maybe recovering from years of hard-core economic strife, the production — which depicts last year's six-week boycott of Massachusetts-based supermarket chain Market Basket — tells the fairly unique story of 25,000 employees who largely shut down operations and stood together to get their fired CEO reinstated.

Apparently Greek-American Arthur T. Demoulas believes in the revolutionary concept of reasonable treatment and compensation for employees, which got him canned by the Market Basket board and his own nearly-namesake cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas — with decades of highly discourteous family feud as backstory, and millions of dollars lost, as a whole lotta disgruntled consumers went off and shopped the competition in staggering numbers.

New York Times, 6 Entrepreneurship Lessons, From Family Businesses, Stacy Cowley, Sept. 19, 2015. Entrepreneurs who have built companies that touch multiple generations share what they have learned along the way. The human touch pays off. When a family conflict at Market Basket, a New England supermarket chain, led to the ouster of Arthur T. Demoulas, the company’s longtime president, the ensuing backlash drew headlines nationwide. Customers and employees rallied to his defense — and won his job back. Many of Mr. Demoulas’s most profound leadership gestures were made far from the spotlight, employees say.

Lowell Sun, Gateway Cities feel pain as Market Basket crisis drags on, Grant Welker, Aug. 14, 2014. Market Basket has always had its biggest presence in the state's so-called Gateway Cities, the older mill cities that are striving toward economic reinvention decades after their manufacturing heydays passed. With the chain's stores all but empty in recent weeks and many of its thousands of part-time workers nearly out of hours, those cities — like Lowell and Haverhill, with three stores each, and Fitchburg, where there are two — are hurting most.

Daniel Korschun"It does have an adverse effect on those individuals who don't have any means to get to another supermarket," Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliott said. Of the roughly 700 part-time Market Basket workers at the three Lowell stores, not one got a single hour of work this week. It doesn't look like any will next week either, unless there is a sudden major change in the nearly month-long boycott, such as a sale to ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Store managers said they don't have enough sales these days to even pay for their remaining full-time staff with guaranteed hours, never mind paying for keeping lights on and refrigerators and freezers running.

"We're not meeting our payroll, that's for sure," said Chris Tikellis, assistant store director at the store on Wood Street in Lowell, where none of the 225 part-timers were given hours this week. Of the Gateway Cities in Eastern Massachusetts, nearly all have a Market Basket, including Brockton, Chelsea, Fitchburg, Lawrence, Leominster, Methuen and New Bedford. Market Basket built new stores in Attleboro and Revere, two other Gateway Cities, but those buildings have sat finished but empty as the company has gone through months of turmoil. The Massachusetts Mayors' Association wrote to Market Basket directors last week urging a resolution as soon as possible to the company's ongoing battles, said James Fiorentini, the Haverhill mayor and vice president of the mayors' association.