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Thousands of part-time workers are returning to their shifts at a New England supermarket chain. Market Basket says its stores will be 90 percent stocked by this weekend. Shelves in some stores have been barren for the past six weeks, after workers walked out to protest the firing of CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. The protest forced shareholders to reinstate the former CEO and sell the company to him. Now the labor movement is taking stock of this major victory by nonunion employees. From member station WBUR, Curt Nickisch reports.
CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: At the annual Labor Day breakfast in Boston, Market Basket was the one thing all of the union members were talking about. Dennis Irvin is with the United Steel Workers Union Local 12012.
DENNIS IRVIN: I've never seen anything like it, that's for sure. And they prevailed, which is even stranger. They took on this, and forced these people to sell their shares to this one guy. It's amazing, totally amazing.
NICKISCH: So amazing that Irvin says Market Basket would rank as one of the great victories in union history here - a long history, lined with progressive milestones for child labor, the eight-hour work day and safer workplace standards. But Market Basket is not making union history because its workers are nonunion, many are anti-union.
JOE SCHMIDT: This company never needed or never will need a union. We're far stronger than that.
NICKISCH: That's Joe Schmidt, a Market Basket operations supervisor. He and other managers led the truckers and warehouse workers who walked off the job and brought the company to a standstill.
SCHMIDT: Just think of it, there's no union dues or union fees and look at what's been accomplished.
NICKISCH: Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman shrugged off that cold shoulder at the Labor Day gathering with union members.
STEVE TOLMAN: There is one thing that we can learn from the Market Basket saga - solidarity works, brothers and sisters. The secret to our ingredient is solidarity, and it worked for them and it will work for us.
NICKISCH: But privately, union members are bothered by how effective Market Basket workers were without their leadership. The supermarket workers used social media to rapidly plan rallies and protests. And instead of asking for the usual strike demands - better benefits or working conditions, they were just asking to get back their fired CEO.
KATE BRONFENBRENNER: That is something that is not covered by the National Labor Relations Act.
NICKISCH: Kate Bronfenbrenner teaches labor relations at Cornell University. She says Market Basket shows the power of managers teaming up with rank-and-file workers. With experienced supervisors walking off the job at the grocery store chain, the replacement workers brought in by company executives didn't really know what to do and the business flailed. Bronfenbrenner expects unions across the country will increasingly ally with managers to fight company executives and shareholders.
BRONFENBRENNER: These companies are becoming so rich. This discrepancy, this gap has gotten so bad that even supervisors and managerial employees are saying we want our fair share too.
NICKISCH: The organized protest by fast-food workers nationwide are another example of changing dynamics in labor relations. The workers targeting franchise restaurants are doing so under a national labor law written more than half-century ago that never anticipated workers across an industry banding together in a job action.
BRONFENBRENNER: Contemporary labor law doesn't fit most working situations.
NICKISCH: So Bronfenbrenner does not think that Market Basket has created a new model for organizing labor without unions. She says the supermarket worker victory just shows how the playbook is being rewritten. Bronfenbrenner says the labor movement needs to be just as creative and strategic as Market Basket workers were to be able to win the next fight. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.
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