Monday, April 11, 2011

Labor Relations

Among the Cabbages, 2003

Many people think the work we marketing researchers do is pretty dull and that we researchers are similarly a pretty tedious lot.

But we’re not all that way, and our work does have its moments.

For example, there was the time I was summoned to the office of the CEO of one of the nation’s largest grocery chains. The company was known for its contentious relationship with labor unions. Conditions had gotten so bad in one state that the company closed all of its stores in that state rather than capitulate to the demands of the labor union representing the store workers. (In some states where this grocery chain operated, even the lowliest high school kid working as a part-time bagger earned more than local schoolteachers and policemen.)

In truth, declining economic conditions and high labor costs had resulted in almost two thirds of the company’s stores in that state being unprofitable. So some within the company saw the closings as a blessing in disguise, the loss of the stores more as a wound to the corporate pride than a real hit to the bottom line.

Still, you don’t close 300 grocery stores at one time without attracting attention. The union wouldn’t be defeated so easily, either, and eventually prevailed upon the governor to intercede to convince the company to re-open some of the stores.

The company decided that if it was going to re-open any stores they would at least be stores that stood the best chance of being profitable. It re-opened conversations with the labor union and agreed to open about a hundred of the stores. As an additional token of good will, the company offered to award its employees in that state shares of the company stock.

This was where I came in. The CEO wanted to know whether the mood of employees had improved was following the re-opening of the stores. For the next several weeks I visited grocery stores and distribution centers around the country. Some people I could interview in a store workroom, others I had to interview where they worked.

Most of the interviews went well. There were still some tensions, but people in the re-opened stores were at least happy to be back to work.

Unfortunately, somewhere between the CEO’s suite and the front lines someone had forgotten to distribute the company stock. I didn’t know this until I showed up one snowy afternoon at a store in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

What was even worse was that I had to learn this bit of unpleasant new from a short, no-nonsense female butcher carrying a very big knife. She backed me up against a wall of the meat department, put the knife to my throat and told me I’d better get the hell out of her department and not come back until I had a stock certificate in my hand.

I didn’t actually work for the company, of course, and had no power to produce such paperwork. But I did get the vice president of human relations on the phone, and he got the state president of labor union on the phone with the woman. I was eventually able to complete the interview. I like to think the butcher and I were actually friends by the time it was over. But just the same, I backed my way out of the meat department that afternoon. You don’t take chances with an angry woman with a big knife.


  1. Chris -- Don't take chances with an angry woman. Or anyone with a knife. Period.

  2. Hahaaa! Did she make you a good pastrami sandwich at least? Classic story. Love the photo and the landscape crop.