I didn’t have good vibes going into Tommy Reid’s We the People: The Market Basket Effect. For one, the clumsy title reminded me of right-wing conspiracy theory documentaries like the Zeitgeist series, Fahrenhype 9/11, and the more recent Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Second, the subject matter sounded like an Ayn Rand fever dream: non-union employees protesting en masse to save their CEO. I fully excepted a film more suited to the murky corners of YouTube than a professionally distributed documentary.
But the story was true, the title merely a poor marketing decision, and the documentary itself strangely compelling. It tells of the 2014 DeMoulas Market Basket protests when 25,000 employees and 2 million customers arose following the firing of Arthur T. Demoulas, the benevolent owner who eschewed traditional business practices. Whereas the vast majority of CEOs focus on increasing returns for investors at the expense of product quality and employee wages, Arthur T. favored enhancing employee productivity through lavish bonuses, a welcoming work environment, and a hands-on managerial approach which inspired worker loyalty. He had inherited these techniques from his grandfather, a turn-of-the-century Greek immigrant whose butcher shop turned grocery store nearly went bankrupt during the Depression because it operated largely on credit. The odd story of Arthur T.’s succession, firing, and eventual reinstatement nearly eclipses the actual protests—a John Grisham-esque yarn of a family feud involving possibly corrupt judges, the FBI, and some of the nastiest backroom politicking imaginable. One anecdote about how one side wire-tapped the other side wire-tapping them was worthy of a 90s Martin Scorsese mafia movie.
But why the fuss? Even with Arthur T.’s practices Market Basket was making hundreds of millions of dollars a year in profits. As one interview subject pointed out, the Board of Directors’ maneuvering against Arthur T. couldn’t have been financially-motivated as they were already multi-millionaires. No, this is a story of the lust for power.
The film’s general thesis seems to be that in an era when labor unions have been crushed and subjugated, the Market Basket protests signal a new age of labor movements utilizing social media and the internet to organize. But the idea is more than this documentary can suitably handle given its run-time. We the People works best when it relegates itself to telling an unusual story about an unusual businessman. If anything I would recommend the film to fledgling businessmen as proof that Arthur T.’s tactics can be both successful and profitable.