We Are Market Basket
The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement That Saved a Beloved Business
Authors: Daniel Korschun, Grant Welker
Pub Date: August 2015
Print Edition: $24.95
Print ISBN: 9780814436653
Page Count: 256
e-Book ISBN: 9780814436684
Buy the book:
“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
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-
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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