Today, the U.S. and Canada celebrate Labor Day, honoring work and workers. In a time of corporate mergers, layoffs, and budget cuts, what does it mean to honor workers? In the U.S., the unemployment rate remains at 6.2% with many of the unemployed and their families suffering as a result. Furthermore, the workers who remain employed after layoffs are expected to do twice as much work, and they and their families suffer from overwork, stress, and lack of time together.
In the U.S., the first celebration of Labor Day was held in 1882 in New York City, organized by the Central Labor Union. In Canada, Labor Day can be traced back even further to when Toronto Typographers went on strike to advocate for a 9-hour workday in 1872. Religious leaders, both nationally and internationally, recognizing the sanctity of labor, joined labor leaders in calling for justice for workers. Pope Leo XIII, for example, issued Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor) in 1891, building a biblical foundation for the dignity of the worker.
One example of what it means to honor workers in this time and place has emerged from the Market Basket case. In June, the Market Basket supermarket chain, embroiled in conflict among the family-member owners, fired popular CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Events subsequently unfolded which belied the conventional corporate wisdom of maximizing shareholder wealth at all costs. Market Basket employees, loyal to “Arthur T.” because of his fair and respectful treatment of workers, walked out. With no union, they organized a strike throughout the chain, also enrolling loyal customers in their cause. After two months of low sales and food spoiling on the shelves, a deal was reached last week in which “Arthur T.” would buy out the rest of the business for $1.5 billion. By Friday, stores had reopened and workers and customers alike celebrated their victory. Market Basket, known for its quality food at economical prices and for its boss who honored the dignity of workers, was back in business.
Today is a Labor Day for Market Basket owners, employees, and customers to remember, a Labor Day which has special meaning because of how the employees stood up for the boss who treated them well, and won. In a world whose pressures make it difficult for bosses to walk the path which Arthur T. Demoulas walked and for employees to walk the path which Market Basket employees walked, an innovative boss and imaginative employees blazed a trail. May their courage inspire other companies to find authentic ways to honor work and workers that reflect their own unique mission and values.