Documentary Review: ‘We The People: The Market Basket Effect’

Review by Justin Goodman

This decade will hopefully be remembered as an inversion of the ‘80s Reagan Revolution—Instead of maximized profits and hallucinations of welfare queens, we’ll have restrained corporate interests and visions of poverty as the humiliation and affliction. There are already symbols that we can look towards as definitive of this new era much how The Wolf of Wall Street turns Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is Good”) into tragic drug addict. Less cinematically, although no less dramatic, We The People: The Market Basket Effect attempts to highlight another such moment in recent American history; 3 years ago, after the popular CEO of a New England supermarket chain was ousted by his cousin on the Board of Directors, the un-unionized employees and customers of Market Basket staged a protest which effectively stopped all stores for over a month. As one interviewee acutely describes the events, “It was a Greek Tragedy on a different level.”

Market Basket began as the mom & pop DeMoulas Market in 1917, founded by the Greek immigrant couple Athanasios “Arthur” and Efronsi DeMoulas. The Great Depression nearly ended it then since, the documentary emphasizes, Arthur generously gave on credit. While this ignores that no one had money to pay with cash and that credit is one of the primary causes of the crash, I digress, as it’s also Reid’s attempt to establish the running theme of the DeMoulas’ unique generous. After WWII, the sons took over the family business—Mike the “brains” and George the “welcome man,” one person puts it—and revitalized it, preventing its foreclosure, and even expanding upon it. Again, Mike’s “inherited” generosity is emphasized and his business acumen acclaimed. George is largely ignored (although, undeniably, was equally generous and profoundly religious) until his death in 1971 leaves his heirs in the hands of Mike: Grant Welker of the Boston Globe describes this promise to care for the other’s family as a “blood oath.”

Blood, as is so common in Greek Tragedy, is as easily spilled as oathed. To We The People’s credit, it handles the following conflict with fast-flung brevity. Evan, son of George, becomes suspicious of Mike’s running of the family business and, by 1990, George’s side of the family files a lawsuit (what would become the most expensive in Massachusetts history) against him. Evan, who had given up his share in the business to become a racecar driver, dies in a dramatically apt car crash in ’91, leaving the lawsuit in the hands of Evan’s brother Arthur S. What’s lost in this intense family drama—which inevitably ended with Mike’s loss and deposing—are implications, and not just regarding Mike’s offices being bugged or Mike’s lawyers attempting to trick witness’ into testifying. Rather, despite its title and an early description of the store as an “enterprise in the hands of the people,” there is surprisingly little interest in anything but the battling of moneyed giants.

Yet I suppose the difficulty of a political documentary is keeping it lively, even if shots of clipped headlines seems a tad cliché and the use of “everything changed” removes any intensity. Which is why the introduction of Mike’s son, Arthur T, into the documentary carries so much weight. He plays the Everyman who worked his way up to CEO and is described by a Lowell priest as “Doing, giving, in a quiet way. No fanfare. Just, a man of action.” Obviously his family name didn’t hurt him in rising through the ranks, but this is a fact that is turned away for a more heroic story. For, once Arthur T is CEO, he becomes messianic. He remembers his employees’ children’s names, sits at their bedside, offers wonderful bonuses and retirement packages, all of which is reflected upon by authors (of books on leadership like Peter S. Cohan and John Feloni) as a brilliant economic position to take and the kind of leadership which avoids the fact that “over 70% of retail workers don’t feel engaged.”

After further minutia allows Arthur S. to fire Arthur T. as CEO we’re finally treated to the essential details of the story of We The People: The Market Basket Effect. A brief mention of the consequences of Reagan’s presidency (without his mention)—“The unionization of full time private sector employees fell by 40% between 1984 and 2002” and “disparity spiked by 40%”—introduces what one of the many unnecessary customer interviews calls “our Arab Spring.” It was a harmless comment meant to emphasize that social media played an enormous part in the organized protest, as it did in the Middle East. But it also exposes the Neoliberal intuitions that blind much of Tommy Reid’s project. “America The Beautiful” plays after Arthur T’s victorious purchasing of 50.5% of the companies stock for $1.5 billion; according to Glass Door a cashier at Market Basket makes $9.11 an hour and, according to Forbes, Arthur T. DeMoulas is worth $3.3 billion dollars. As in most of the Arab Spring countries (Reddit user yodatsracist gives a lengthy explanation summarized as “almost everywhere in the Middle East things look somewhere between ‘pretty much the same’ and ‘dramatically worse’”), disparity has not changed and those in power have remained in power.

Most depressingly is the inclusion of Maggie Hassan, governor of Massachusetts, who has stated her support for Hillary Clinton. Clinton has a history of choosing prudence over unions, including one episode as a college student where she and Bill crossed a picket line for their date, which Jacobin elaborates on. While it’s comforting to hear that we don’t need unions because we have the Internet, it’s also extremely stupid. It comes far short of actually supporting the motto it uses, and its depiction of the DeMoulas battle is very similar to some documentary on Medieval England wars of succession, giving wealth the air of dynasty. We should not forget that the man who was re-instated was not an ousted politician or a vocal advocate of unionization. He was a wealthy businessman who lost his job as a normal proceeding of business; what documentary can we expect of Steve Jobs’ ousting? 87I requested to know Tommy Reid’s politics regarding the most recent election. As of this review, I have heard nothing back.

Opening in New York on April 22nd
Opening In New England Starting April 14th
Opening On Demand May 18th

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