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August 16. 2014 10:55PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Working for the boss of your choice


MASSACHUSETTS Gov. Deval Patrick's appeal to Market Basket employees to return to work perhaps said more than he intended it to say. While Patrick's belated efforts to exact a compromise that would end the family feud and return thousands of employees back to work is laudable, one of his statements underscored the very reason why this stalemate has attracted news coverage from around the world.

"I think it's important for the workers to understand, for the associates to understand, that they can go right back to work and they would do a service to the people served by Market Basket," Patrick told reporters in Boston last week. "Usually companies are able to buy and sell each other without workers walking off the job and saying they're not going to work unless they get the boss of their choice."

In other words, Patrick is saying, companies usually are free to buy and sell and merge without interference from the rank-and-file folks whose hard work and loyalty are largely responsible for their success.

The story of Market Basket is what happens when you give workers the choice, or at least the possibility of one worth fighting for. Not just the boss of their choice, but a shot at compensation that rewards them for their work in a manner that makes their jobs more than just a way to collect a paycheck.

Usually sales and mergers lead to layoffs and other cost-cutting measures - the match to the 401(k), higher co-pays for health care, bonuses, job cuts - the types of efficiencies that propel companies to cut such deals. It's how business works, and it's how workers these days expect the game to be played.

Companies are bought, companies are sold, and you might become a line item on the budget to the new owners and find yourself out on the street looking for another job. They already have someone doing what you do in Cleveland, and one of you is getting a pink slip.

It's a story that has played out for millions of people over the past several years as so many companies have struggled to survive both the recession and the rapid pace of technological change. With Market Basket, though, we've seen a company that has thrived. So why has it become such a mess?

As George Will reminds us in a column today on Page B8 about President Obama's crusade against corporations shifting their headquarters overseas, "a publicly held corporation's responsibility is to its shareholders; its fiduciary duty is to maximize the value of their holdings."

Market Basket is a privately held company, but at the heart of this story is the internal struggle among its board members between maximizing the value of their company and the desire of a CEO to operate in a manner that he could have never dreamed possible within the confines of a publicly traded corporation. Court documents suggest Arthur T. has run the company as if it were his own, rather than the less-than-half his side of the family owns.

We know that Arthur T. pays generously and rewards workers with bonuses. He reportedly stuck his neck out by pushing the company to make the employees' profit-sharing plan whole again when it lost $46 million in the 2008 recession, thanks to a disastrous investment in the preferred stock of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - the subject of a UK story last week in The Guardian.

Let's put aside for a moment that Arthur T. does these things because he's a nice guy.

Consider, perhaps, that he does these things because he truly believes that it's in best interest for the long-term success of Market Basket. That he does these things because it buys him the kind of intense loyalty he needs to build a workforce that can crush the competition in a battle with international conglomerates.

Or is he doing all this just to wrest control away from his cousin? Please tell us this is more than just a fist fight over who gets the most marbles.

Arthur T. Demoulas has given the little guys a voice, and they've been roaring ever since. But they're getting rather hoarse. What they really want to say: Are you guys done? Can we come back to work now? Can we just pretend this never happened?

Mike Cote is business editor. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or

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