Micum McIntire stood shoulder to shoulder with his employees inside the cafe at Market Basket in Biddeford just after noon Monday, his eyes glued to live TV coverage of his company imploding at an outdoor protest in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.
“They’re calling for us to shut the stores down,” said McIntire, the Biddeford store director, as thousands of Market Basket workers and their supporters rallied for their recently fired CEO and against the company’s new leadership. “That’s what they’re saying: ‘Shut it down.’ ”
And where did that leave McIntire?
“I have no idea,” he replied.
Had he received any guidance from Demoulas Supermarkets Inc., the grocery chain’s Massachusetts-based parent company?
“There’s nobody there,” replied McIntire, his face etched with anxiety. “They’ve all been fired.”
Make no mistake about it. What’s happening at Market Basket’s 71 stores throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine the past several days is nothing short of remarkable.
Employees, from seasoned managers down to the greenest baggers, have all but crippled the company as they demand that its board of directors first and foremost reinstate Arthur T. Demoulas. A worker’s boss if ever there was one, he was ousted last month by a newly configured, five-member board majority.
At the same time, there’s universal fear that the new regime, led by Arthur T. Demoulas’ cousin and longtime rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, plans to increase profits for shareholders at the expense of the company’s intensely loyal and long-serving workers.
They’re not members of any union. As McIntire put it, “it’s never been necessary.”
Nor are they immune from termination or other punishment for essentially shutting down the chain’s delivery system and leaving most stores without fresh meat and produce. Since late last week, at least 17 top-level managers have either resigned or been fired.
And yes, a strong current of self-interest runs beneath the workers’ rapidly spreading calls to bring back their beloved “Artie T.”
He is, after all, the guy who gave them free health insurance, profit-sharing and annual bonuses – and underlying it all, a sense of family that you’ll never find at your nearest Wal-Mart or so many other places where the bottom line is devoted solely to profits, not people.
The irony is that Market Basket already is one very profitable operation: Last year, the chain netted $217 million on sales of $3.5 billion. It’s currently rated sixth among the nation’s supermarket chains by Consumer Reports and 47th among the top 75 food retailers in the country by the trade publication Supermarket News.
Like its counterparts to the south, Maine’s only Market Basket has performed like gangbusters since it opened in Biddeford last summer with its crazy-low prices, sparkling clean aisles and some 400 employees who, at least until now, have had plenty to feel good about.
“As of right now, I have bonuses, I have profit sharing. I just came back from a paid vacation,” said produce worker Shane Savage, 22, of Lebanon. “This new guy who’s in charge wants to take that all away.”
Savage, unable to stock produce this week because there isn’t any, had transferred to the Biddeford store last year after five years at the Market Basket in Rochester, New Hampshire. When “Artie T” came to open the new store, he handed Savage an $800 bonus along with a heartfelt “Thanks for being here.”
And how about that profit sharing?
“It’s for retirement,” said Savage. “You know how most companies say you have to match them? Nothing. They put it in for me. I don’t have to match a single penny.”
Thus it’s little wonder that when perplexed customers came looking for fresh vegetables Monday, Savage quickly steered them to a customer petition calling for the immediate reinstatement of Arthur T. Demoulas.
Or that all over the store, per order of store director McIntire, shoppers saw photos of Arthur T. over a quote titled “Loyalty,” as well as a full-page “rebuttal” to an ad placed in The Boston Globe on Saturday by new co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch.
“I’m just trying to get people more involved,” said McIntire, who first came to work for Market Basket as a bagger in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was 16 then; he’s now going on 51.
“I’m still working my high school job,” McIntire said. “And I support the guy who’s been my boss for 35 years.”
Now ask yourself, when was the last time you heard of an entire workforce, upwards of 25,000 people, grinding a successful company to a virtual halt not because they hate all management, but because they love the top boss who was just shown the door?
“I recently heard on the news that it happens once in a while in China where people want their CEO back,” mused McIntire. “I know. It’s backwards.”
It’s also resonating deeply with customers who, in this era of ever-widening income inequality, know a good cause when they see one.
“This is the good guy,” said Kitty Collopy of Alfred, pointing to a nearby picture of “Artie T” after affixing her name to the petition. “I would like the young people to keep their benefits and have a decent wage. And it doesn’t sound like the other guy really wants that to happen.”
Nearby, Edward McDonough and his wife, Millie, signed just below Collopy’s name.
Back before the Biddeford store opened, the McDonoughs would travel almost an hour from their home in Saco to shop at the Market Basket in Portsmouth. Now residents of Westbrook, they think nothing of driving a half hour south to continue the tradition.
“Greed overtakes common sense,” said Edward McDonough, who once worked as a union man at the Portland Terminal Co.’s train-switching yard in South Portland and now considers himself a “conservative Republican.”
“It’s too bad,” he added, scanning the rows of empty produce bins. “They’ve forgotten what it is for people to have to make a living.”
How this plays out is anyone’s guess.
While the Demoulas Supermarkets board considers the proposal by Arthur S. that the company take on $1.5 billion in debt (it currently has none) to fatten shareholder dividends, the Save Market Basket Facebook page has exploded from around 10,000 likes over the weekend to more than 52,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.
And while the Biddeford store remains open (sort of), an orange sign posted at the entrance to the Market Basket in Haverhill, Massachusetts, now contains this startling message:
“To Our Valued Customers: Due to recent events following the ouster of our CEO and Top Management, we kindly ask you to stop shopping with us temporarily until this issue is resolved. We appreciate your Patience and Understanding during this troubled time. We are confident that by sticking together, we will win our fight and once again be the Market Basket we all know. We stand as one.”
Imagine that. Thousands of workers, supported by hundreds of thousands of customers, standing as one against a sudden onslaught of pure, unadulterated, corporate greed.
It’s about time.