BOSTON – Executives at the troubled Market Basket supermarket chain in New England stepped up their efforts Monday to fight back against a workers’ revolt and customer boycott that have paralyzed the company and drawn attention for their unusual demand to reinstate the previous CEO.
The company had set up a job fair for its workers to replace colleagues who walked off the job to protest the firing of CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. But in a statement, newly appointed co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch said they heard from many employees who are “concerned for their safety” if they attend the fair, which began Monday. Market Basket said it established an email address so employees can apply for other jobs without attending the fair.
Market Basket operates 71 stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. The family-owned chain has been plagued by infighting for decades featuring Demoulas and his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. In June, a board controlled by Arthur S. Demoulas fired his cousin as CEO, prompting protest rallies attended by thousands of Market Basket employees and supporters who say he kept prices low and treated them well.
Hundreds of warehouse employees and drivers have refused to work for the past two weeks, leaving store shelves severely depleted and prompting customers to shop elsewhere. The employees, supported by many boycotting customers, have demanded the reinstatement of the previous CEO.
On Monday, Thornton and Gooch said they were allowing employees to apply for new jobs via email because they feel “associates interested in opportunity should be given an opportunity without fear of intimidation or harassment.”
But organizers of the protests said they believe that few, if any, Market Basket employees will attend the job fair.
“That’s a smokescreen,” said Tom Trainor, a district supervisor who worked for Market Basket for 41 years before being fired last month for helping to organize the protests.
“There’s been no violence at all. For them to say they had many inquiries is baloney. They don’t know our culture. Our people aren’t going to applying for jobs to replace people.”
Steve Paulenka, another one of the eight supervisors fired last month, said that about 200 employees and customers protested peacefully outside the job fair, holding signs calling for the reinstatement of Arthur T. Demoulas. He said he did not see any current employees going inside the building to apply for new jobs.
“There is no one going inside right now,” he said.
The company had given workers a Monday deadline to return or work or risk being replaced. Trainor said no additional employees received termination letters Monday. He said during the past two weeks, the company has hired some temporary warehouse workers, but only a small fraction of deliveries are being made.
“You can’t put a price on experience,” he said.
Arthur T. Demoulas has sought to buy the company. On Sunday, he offered to return to work to stabilize the company while negotiations continue over his purchase bid.
The company’s board of directors, however, reaffirmed its support for Thornton and Gooch.
In full-page ads taken out in the region’s newspapers last week, the company said it will attempt to recruit for various jobs, including store directors and assistant directors. But Paulenka said people in those jobs are still working and have kept their stores running.
“Those stores have been open. It’s not their fault that they don’t have a lick of chicken, a stalk of celery or a yogurt in their stores,” Paulenka said. “Why do you post a full-page ad to replace people who have been going to work every day?”
The workers said they expected up to 15,000 people to attend a large rally Tuesday outside a Market Basket store about 25 miles north of Boston in Tewksbury, where the company has its headquarters.