We Are Market Basket

The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement That Saved a Beloved Business

 We Are Market Basket

Authors: Daniel Korschun, Grant Welker
Pub Date: August 2015
Print Edition: $24.95
Print ISBN: 9780814436653
Page Count: 256
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814436684

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Excerpt

1

“You’ve Never Met a

Family Like This”

It is hard to imagine a more challenging time and place to open a grocery

than 1917 in Lowell. But that’s when Market Basket got its start in

this mill city on the Merrimack River about twenty-five

miles north

of Boston. In the late 1800s, Lowell had been heralded as a beacon of

the Northeast. The first two decades of the twentieth century were a

different story. Lowell’s fortunes were on a downturn.

The city had previously relied on the Merrimack River to generate

endless, relatively low-cost

hydropower. This enabled decades

of growth, turning the Merrimack Valley into a stalwart of the textile

industry. But the rise of coal as a cheap alternative energy source

turned Lowell’s competitive advantage into a competitive shortcoming.

Its infrastructure was inflexible, and the mills began to close one by one.

Textile companies moved their mills to seaport locations, which could

receive coal shipments more cheaply.

As jobs dried up, unease hung heavy in the region. The unease

fueled a number of worker strikes at mills in the region, the most

famous of which is the Bread and Roses Strike in nearby Lawrence,

Massachusetts. During that strike, about thirty thousand textile workers

walked off their jobs for two-and-

a-

half

months during a bitter

winter in 1912. The struggle began on New Year’s Day, when legislation

took effect reducing the workweek from fifty-six

to fifty-four

hours. The law was supposed to provide relief for workers. But companies

responded by reducing overall weekly pay. A group of workers

at the Everett Mill opened their paychecks to find a pay reduction of

$0.32 (the average weekly pay for these workers was $8.76). The cut

translated into roughly four loaves of bread per week for families of

mill employees. They walked off the job and demonstrated, chanting,

“Short pay! Short pay!”

The Industrial Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies)

appealed to a wide range of workers affected by the pay cut. Mostly

the workers were immigrants from southern and eastern European

countries, as well as parts of the Middle East. They were separated by

cultural, religious, and linguistic differences. Determined not to let

those differences interfere with their resolve, the Wobblies recruited

representatives from English, Polish, Greek, Italian, and other backgrounds.

The protesters became bound by a common need to improve

their living and working conditions.

A walkout at the Everett Mill quickly spread to others in Lawrence as

more and more disgruntled workers joined in. Within a week, their numbers

had swelled to ten thousand. Their demands were straightforward:

a 15 percent increase in wages, double pay for overtime work, and a

pledge from owners to not retaliate against strikers.

A majority of the workers in the mills of Lawrence were women

and children, and the protest gained strength from the feminist movement

of that time. They were fiercely determined to change the way

ownership was operating the mills, showing “lots of cunning and also

lots of bad temper,” according to one mill boss. One group of women

cornered a police officer, stripped him of his uniform, and tossed him

over a bridge into the icy waters below. Such civil disobedience led the

district attorney, Harry Atwell, to comment that “one policeman can

handle 10 men, while it takes 10 policemen to handle one woman.”

The strikers dug in for a long struggle; they formed relief committees

that provided food, medical care, and clothing to families left without

an income. The companies hired thugs to intimidate the protesters.

The governor of Massachusetts sent state police and militia to fire-hose

picketers. This only enflamed tempers more. Their resolve and unity

remained intact. One magazine observed, “At first everyone predicted

that it would be impossible to mold these divergent people together,

but aside from the skilled men, comparatively few [broke the strike and]

went back to the mills.”

Workers continued picketing and clashed violently with authorities

over weeks, destroying machinery at the mills. At protest parades,

demonstrators carried banners demanding not only a living wage but

also a more dignified workplace. “We want bread, and roses, too,” they

chanted, drawing from a populist poem by James Oppenheim called

“Bread and Roses.”

After weeks of struggle, the American Woolen Company finally

agreed to all the strikers’ demands on March 12, 1912. Within a few

weeks, most other mills had too. Before long, factories across New England

also raised pay and shortened the workweek in fear of similar repercussions.

The strike is now remembered as among the first in which

workers from multiple ethnicities united to improve their working conditions,

in which they demanded dignity in the workplace and won.

—Against

this backdrop of economic challenge and labor strife, a young

man arrived in Lowell. His name was Athanasios Demoulas. In Greek,

athanasios means “immortal.” Demoulas, which shares the root “demo”

in democracy, carries connotations of one who serves the public welfare.

Arthur, as he later became known, departed from his native Greece

in order to avoid the strife that had already taken his father’s life. He

was twenty-three

when he landed at Ellis Island on St. Patrick’s Day in

1906. Rumor has it that his hopes were so grandiose that as he walked

the streets of New York City to catch the train to Lowell, he mused

that the holiday parade was for him.

His entrance may have felt grand to him, but his story was common

for that time. There would be thousands of other immigrants

with similar dreams, facing similar obstacles. Throughout the 1800s,

the success of Lowell’s textile mills drew a steady stream of workers.

According to the Lowell Historical Society, more than a third of all

Lowell residents at that time were foreign born. They first arrived from

Quebec—Lowell

was sometimes referred to as Little Canada because

of the influx of French Canadians. Subsequent waves of immigrants

came from Europe, with a spike in Greek arrivals around the early

twentieth century. Arthur Demoulas arrived toward the end of that

Greek wave.

By the time Demoulas arrived, the mark of Greeks in Lowell was

already indelible. Greek Orthodox churches had sprung up, Greek

coffeehouses had started to appear, and construction had begun on the

Greek Holy Trinity Church. Organizations such as the Washington-Acropolis

Society formed to advance the fortunes of Greek immigrants.

Despite their growing influence in the region, life remained

challenging. Greek employees had gained a reputation not only for

their hard work but also for being challenging to manage. For a time,

Bigelow Carpet Company and others refused to hire people of Greek

origin because of a series of strikes thought to be organized by the

Hellenic community.

Athanasios settled in the Acre, a section of Lowell nestled near an

elbow of the Merrimack River that was being populated by a rapidly

growing Greek community. (It is still known by many as “Greektown.”)

Once he settled in, he sent for his fiancée, Efrosine Soulis, who was

waiting for him in his home village of Meteora. They married in 1914.

Demoulas first found work in a tannery as a shoemaker. But before long,

the poor working conditions in the factory began to affect his health.

A doctor advised him to find new work away from the factory setting.

So Athanasios and Efrosine opened a modest grocery—one

of a

dozen in the neighborhood. Perhaps to give it an air of sophistication,

they capitalized the “M” in Demoulas, calling it DeMoulas Market. The

shop was located on Dummer Street on the western edge of downtown

Lowell. It was frequented by mostly poor and working-class

members

of the Greek community who picked up meats and other foods on

their way to the mills. He also delivered groceries free of charge. In

those days, it was common for customers to buy on credit. Especially

in immigrant cities, customers would run a tab during the week and

then pay the balance on payday. A great number of Demoulas’s customers

paid this way, making him part grocer, part banker, all the while

keeping him closely tied to the fortunes of Lowell’s working poor.

The Demoulases worked hard—very

hard. Their store was only six

hundred square feet. But they were ambitious and hoped to make a

name for themselves for their fresh lamb. Workers on their way to the

mills began to stop by the store for one of Efrosine’s roasted pork

sandwiches, a specialty for which she was gaining a reputation. The

couple did their own slaughtering. To keep up with growing demand,

Athanasios had to make multiple trips per week to the railroad yards

to pick up live pigs and sheep. After a few years, they bought land in

the adjacent town of Dracut, where they developed a farm to raise

cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and ducks.

By outward appearances, the Demoulases were an average, hardworking

family, reaching for the American dream. But as Richard

Fichera, a thirty-three-year

Market Basket associate from Danville,

New Hampshire, put it at one of the demonstrations in 2013, “You’ve

never met a family like this.”

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