About 100 employees from the embattled New England grocery chain Market Basket traveled from southern Maine this morning to take part in a huge rally at corporate headquarters in Massachusetts, where thousands of co-workers are calling for the return of an ousted former CEO.
(Audio of rally in Tewksbury, Massachusetts): Market Basket employees have staged a number of rallies over the last few weeks, but this one is the largest, and it's all inspired by one man - Arthur T. Demoulas. Demoulas was fired earlier this summer, as a decades-old family feud erupted into a board room revolt when Demoulas' cousin and rival - Arthus S. Demoulas - gained control over the board of directors.
The company employs some 25,000 people in more than 70 stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, where Market Basket opened its first outlet last summer - the first of several planned in the Pine Tree State.
Here at Market Basket's Biddeford location, things are quiet for a Friday - very quiet. Three cash registers are up and running. Normally there would be 20, says the store's grocery manager Mark Cheney, a 28-year veteran of the company. Also, the shelves are unusually bare.
"There's no produce whatsoever," he says. "There's no chicken, barely any beef, barely any pork, the aisles are pretty devastated."
That's because the company's warehouse workers have refused to make deliveries. It's part of a concerted wave of action in support of Arthur T. Demoulas - known to supporters as Artie T. Eight employees have already been fired for their efforts. Since his ouster, there's been an outpouring of support for Demoulas among employees and a call for his return.
At the Biddeford store, for example, there are numerous photographs of the man, accompanied by slogans such as "We Support Artie T" and "Our Jobs, Our Family, Your Store."
Front-end Manager Mike Menard, who's been with Market Basket 11 years, says Demoulas is popular with employees because he involves them in profit-sharing schemes, and because he makes the effort to get to know everyone.
"He'll come in and talk to you, 'Hey how's your mother, I heard she was sick? How's your father? How's your family? Mark how do you like being up here? I appreciate you, and thank you for coming, Michael - thank for you doing what you do,' " Menard says. "Just a guy, a down-to-earth person you want to work for. Just keeps it family, that's what we are, just a family."
Demoulas wants to regain control of the store, and earlier this week put in an offer to buy the supermarket chain. With employees - including the several dozen who traveled down from Maine - protesting in nearby Tewksbury, the Market Basket board met Friday in Boston to consider this, and other offers. The company is privately-owned so the exact value is not public knowledge, but estimates put its worth at around $3 billion.
Employees don't seem re-assured by the new leadership's promise that no drastic changes are being planned in the way the company is run. The view among employees is that the new regime is more interested in satisfying shareholders than in keeping its workforce happy.
Both Mike Menard and Mark Cheney admit these are stressful times. "Part of me's a little nervous, but ATD, he'll take care of us," Menard says. "I've all the faith in him."
"I'm very nervous," Cheney says. "It's been a stressful couple of weeks, yes."
There also seems to be strong support for Arthur T. Demoulas among Market Basket's customers.
"I hope Artie T. gets control of the company again so it can get back to where it belongs," says Steve, who declined to give his last name, but says he's a part-time Maine resident from Massachusetts.
Tom Porter: "What do you like about the stores so much?"
Steve: "What do I like about the stores? Well, we've been dealing with this company for 45 years, and we're used to it, and I think the value is here."
Local resident and mother of six Jennifer Byas is also attracted by the discount prices at Market Basket. She says she would like to see Arthur T. Demoulas back in charge.
"When we feel strongly about something as an American, it's good for us to band together and show our support for what we believe is correct," she says.
"Well, I think this is an incredible dispute. This is type of thing we don't often see in America," says Gary Chaisson, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. What makes this dispute so unusual, he says, is that the workers are not taking action to save their own jobs.
"The workers are demonstrating to save the job of their boss, and usually there's a gulf between the boss and the workers," he says.
So essentially, Chaisson says, workers - who are not unionized - are jeopardizing their own jobs to save their CEO. "And this is very rare, very seldom seen," he says.
Demoulas Supermarkets, the company that owns the Market Basket chain, did not respond to a request for comment by airtime.