We the People: The Market Basket Effect

Extraordinarily well-crafted documentary about customers and employees of a supermarket chain rising up to fight a corporate takeover.
Specialty Releases

Shocker: If you treat and pay your employees well, they'll show loyalty and high productivity, and be happier and more invested in their work, which translates to treating customers well, helping retain customer loyalty. In the case of the family-owned New England supermarket chain Market Basket, one of America's most successful and profitable regional grocery chains ever, that's also translated to fierce customer and employee devotion toward longtime CEO Arthur R. Demoulas. And as this documentary, one of a recent pair on the subject, demonstrates, that led to a remarkable 35-day showdown in 2014, in which roughly 25,000 striking employees of 71 stores in three states banded with boycotting customers to save the chain from a cousin's takeover that would have meant more corporate profit at the expense of higher prices and worsened pay and working conditions. Since the owners already were billionaires—#83 on Forbes' 2015 list of the country's richest families, with $3.3 billion—it's not a leap to see the events as a microcosm of rajah-rich corporate America's push to squeeze ever-greater profits by eroding the middle class. But in this case, the middle class—and lower-middle class and working class—fought back.

With extremely high-caliber editing, cinematography and music, We the People: The Market Basket Effect corrals a wide range of interview subjects from company truck drivers and managers to everyday customers to New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan and Massachusetts congresswoman Niki Tsongas, to Ted Leonsis, majority owner of hockey's Washington Capitals, the NBA's Washington Wizards and the WNBA's Washington Mystics, among other ventures, and one of this film's executive producers. All told, they make a case for an enlightened-self-interest form of capitalism. As Tom Kochan, an MIT professor of work and employment relationships, says, Market Basket's low-price business model is similar to that of many other businesses, such as Walmart, except that “they do it not by squeezing employees and having low wages. They do it by having very high productivity from their employees." Sure, the Walmart-owning Walton family, whose employees are paid so little they often need to take government assistance, is #1 on the Forbes list, with $149 billion, but seriously, after the first three or four billion, you really can't make ends meet?

The Market Basket ethos traces its roots to Greek immigrant Athanasiøs "Arthur" Demoulas, who arrived in Lowell, Mass., around 1906 and opened a storefront butcher shop in a heavily Greek area. "It was always about the people and treating his customers with respect," says narrator Michael Chiklis, and while that's pretty much what any mom-and-pop immigrant business has to do, Demoulas always went further, says Rose Sergi, author of People Before Profits. As the Great Depression loomed, she notes, Arthur would give poor customers bread and ham; that, and letting people buy on credit, "was almost unheard of," she says.

That came at a cost: In 1938, Arthur almost lost his business to foreclosure. We don't learn how he rode that out, but the store survived and two of his children, Telemachus ("Mike") and George, ran the operation with their parents for next few decades. The brothers took over in the 1950s and the business boomed and expanded. With the one store doing $2 million a year in business, they opened a second in Lowell in 1957; by the end of 1966, there were 11 stores, and by the end of 1970, sales were in the range of $86 million.

Long before then, the brothers, very progressively, had begun a profit-sharing plan for their 1,500 employees. Butchers, bakers, baggers—people stayed with the company for decades and were able to leave with hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement funds. Leonsis says it was "genius in terms of business leadership," since employee turnover was low and productivity and morale were high.

It's little wonder, then, that—after a series of family squabbles and lawsuits after George died and Mike took over and was eventually ousted by a faction of heirs—Mike's son Arthur T. generated the same goodwill after the board elected him president of Demoulas Supermarkets in 2008 and kept up the same business ethos. Trish Regan, a Fox Business Network anchor and Market Basket customer, says Arthur T. had the ability to connect with people, "which I think made everyone in that company feel like they were part of something… Artie T. was the kind of guy who would say, 'Y'know, I can maybe do with a little less profit this year. I want to see my employees paid well and I think my customers need a bit of a break.'"

You can see how that might be heresy in corporate America, and eventually Arthur T.'s cousin, Arthur S., who wanted to maximize shareholder dividends, oversaw a coup in June 2014 that saw Arthur T. fired. After that came the groundswell at the heart of this documentary, as store managers loyal to Arthur T. shut their stores down, and stores that remained open lost 90 percent of their business thanks to a social-media-fueled boycott by truly angry, angry customers. One protestor here calls it "our Arab Spring." And let me say that a great, rocking protest song set to Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," sung by soundalike band The Morning Buzz, really needs to be under consideration for a Best Song Academy Award.

Directed by Tommy Reid, whose work as a director/producer evolved from raunchy sports comedies to documentaries—and, coincidentally, is the brother of actress Tara Reid—We the People packs in facts yet moves quickly and pertinently. Some things needed more reporting, such as Arthur S.' claim that Arthur T. was self-dealing by placing new stores on properties that T.'s side of the family owned. And the script does lay it on a bit thick, in language that puts the purple in "purple mountains' majesty." I'm not kidding—at one point, a heavenly choir sings "America the Beautiful" against a vista of New England towns and forests.

Yet though the film lean heavily on the Arthur T. side, he apparently had nothing to do with it—he appears in a brief interview toward the end, evidently caught on the fly after a press conference, and seems to be unaware there was a documentary being done. Arthur S., we're told, refused to be interviewed.

Another documentary, Food Fight: Inside the Battle for Market Basket, recently played the Boston International Film Festival. It would make a fascinating double feature. But We the People on its own is a powerful argument for a fairer and more balanced corporate environment. As author Sergi puts it, summing up the bigger picture, "These guys are billionaires. It's not about the money."

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