Grocery Store Theology: Market Basket, Labor Day, and Respecting the Worker

Protesters hold signs and taunt a car entering the site of a Market Basket Supermarket job fair in Andover, Mass., Wednesday,
Protesters hold signs and taunt a car entering the site of a Market Basket Supermarket job fair in Andover, Mass., Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. Market Basket employees and their supporters are calling for the reinstatement of their fired CEO, even as the company is in the midst of a three-day job fair to replace employees who have refused to work during a revolt that is costing the supermarket chain millions. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

In early July, I started a new pastorate and my spouse and I moved to southern New Hampshire. There are three large grocery stores in our new towns, as well as a handful of smaller markets, but before we ever got here she knew exactly where she wanted to shop: Market Basket.

I had never been to a Market Basket before. It's a chain located only in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and I've never been close enough to one. But Market Basket has an intensely loyal customer base and, as we've come to find out in the past month, an intensely loyal group of employees as well.

Around the time we arrived in New Hampshire, Arthur T. Demoulas, the longtime President and CEO, was forced out by Market Basket's board. The ouster was part family-dispute gone bad and part a push for business practices that would result in higher revenues and happier stockholders.

But in the aftermath of Demoulas' departure, a funny thing happened. Employees, loyal to a boss who was legendary for paying them fairly, giving bonuses, and treating them with humanity, decided they were going to get him back. With organizing usually only seen in unions, they protested daily in front of the stores, and encouraged boycotts. And yet, they weren't protesting management; they were protesting for management. Or, at least, the one they knew and loved.

At this point it might be easy to say, "Well, of course they wanted him back. He started worked pay at $12 and a cashier could make over $40,000 a year on top of generous benefits. They were looking out for themselves."

Except the boycott only worked because the customers joined it. While some still shopped the still-open stores (workers protested on off-hours), most drove past Market Basket parking lots, honking in support of employees, and turned into Hannafords and Stop and Shops instead. The employee protest was like a picket line that most of the neighbors of the stores' cashiers, stockers, and butchers refused to cross.

In my church, where prayer concerns are raised during worship by members of the congregation, the employees of Market Basket were raised up by non-employees. And in my neighborhood people across the political spectrum talked about refusing to shop at the often far-less expensive Market Basket out of solidarity for the workers. They decided paying a few more dollars to send a message was worth it.

Eventually, after prolonged negotiations, the Market Basket board caved and sold the company to Arthur T. Demoulas. And as of this week the stores are filling back up with groceries and, more importantly, loyal shoppers. Tonight, as we were able to make our weekly grocery run for the first time at Market Basket, I was struck by the full check-out lines.

Which seems fitting on this Labor Day weekend. Because, though unions played a huge role in this particular holiday, and though I greatly respect unions, the issue here was even bigger. It's about the way workers are treated, and about how it is possible for even large corporations to not lose sight of their humanity. This is an ethical issue. And it is a theological issue.

There is a reason that churches, from the Roman Catholic Church to the United Church of Christ and a host of others, have long supported worker's rights. We believe in the full humanity of all people, no matter what their job title. To view people as cogs in a corporate system, or as interchangeable resources, is to fail to recognize the image of God that is present in them.

This is something about which Scripture is not silent. Far more than prohibitions on sex or marriage or the role of women, Scripture is explicitly and repeatedly concerned with matters of economic justice and treating workers fairly. There are more verses that have to do with money and how people are treated by those who hold power than there are on nearly any other topic. Though that is not a particularly popular concern these days (I doubt it ever has been) it is an important one, nonetheless.

Arthur T. Demoulas is not the proverbial little guy. He is a wealthy man. And so in some ways celebrating his victory may seem antithetical to celebrating the rights of workers. And yet, he has chosen a style of leadership that values his workers. And, in doing so, he has embraced a business model that not only resulted in happy employees, but one that succeeded financially. He has proven that it is possible to be both an ethical and successful businessman.

He is not alone. Craig Jelinek of Costco has proved the same thing by paying his employees fair wages and encouraging reciprocal loyalty. (Interestingly, Costco also closes on Labor Day.) Other companies like Nordstrom's, Sephora, REI, the Container Store, and more have found similar success by using good business practices. And, of course, successful small local businesses have long realized that their success is directly related to their employees happiness, and their employee's happiness is directly related to whether they are treated with respect.

And so, for those of us roam the aisles with our shopping carts, there is a question we should all be asking. Where do we want our money to go, and what kind of business do we want to support?

I don't agree with Billy Graham on all matters, but I've always been struck by something he once said: "A checkbook is a theological document; it will tell you who and what you worship." He's right. The choices we make about where to spend our money tell us what we value, and how seriously we take our faith. Each purchase we make is more than a financial transaction; it's a spiritual one. And each time we stand at a cash register, face to face with an employee who may or may not be getting respect and a living wage, we have a choice about how we are going to live out our faith.