TEWKSBURY — They left their jobs as butchers and baggers, cashiers and clerks, and came from Rochester, N.H., Fitchburg, Raynham, and Milford for a noisy show of worker solidarity against company bosses they distrust.
In an unusual sign of unity and devotion, more than 2,000 supporters of ousted Demoulas Market Basket chief executive Arthur T. Demoulas gathered outside the chain’s headquarters Friday to demand his return to the top of the family supermarket empire.
They carried colorful signs and cheered speeches against corporate greed, all the while risking being fired for skipping work to attend the protest.
“We do this every day until he comes back,” Tom Trainor, a longtime Market Basket supervisor, said of the employee protests on behalf of Demoulas, who was fired in late June by a board controlled by his chief rival and cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas.
Organizers vowed to stage more such events, beginning Monday, when the board of Demoulas Super Markets Inc. is scheduled to meet to consider the extraordinary situation in which the employees, not the owners, are trying to dictate who should run the privately held multibillion-dollar company.
The protest Friday attracted a sprawling crowd outside the low-slung Demoulas headquarters building in Tewksbury. One group of 30 arrived from Fitchburg in a yellow school bus, honking, yelling, and brandishing protest signs, including one that read, “Save Market Basket, Save Artie T.”
Many spoke reverently of Arthur T. Demoulas as a boss who always asked after their well-being and attended wakes and funerals to personally comfort grieving employees.
Larry Frost, a manager and head cashier in Billerica, said he was “in mourning” about Arthur T. Demoulas’s dismissal.
“It’s not just that we want him back,” Frost said. “We need him back.”
Neither the company’s directors nor the new chief executives they hired to replace Demoulas responded to requests for comment on the scene that unfolded in front of their offices Friday morning.
However, in a letter to customers that appears as an advertisement in The Boston Globe on Saturday, new cochief executives Felicia Thornton and James F. Gooch apologized for the controversy. Some employees, the pair wrote, had “lost sight of the top priority — taking care of you — and instead engaged in actions that harm Market Basket’s reputation and prevent us from meeting our obligations to you.”
“We sincerely apologize if your Market Basket experience has been affected and is not in keeping with the standards you expect from everyone here,” the executives added.
The board has previously said it fired Arthur T. Demoulas for being insubordinate and spending money recklessly. For more than 20 years, the cousins have waged a bitter battle for control of the company, the feud dating back to the 1970s when the family of Arthur S. accused the Arthur T. side of the family of cheating them out of company shares.
Arthur T. Demoulas, through a spokeswoman, also declined to comment.
On Thursday, Thornton and Gooch warned employees in a letter they could be fired if they missed work for the rally.
“If you choose to abandon your job or refuse to perform your job requirements, you will leave us no choice but to permanently replace you,” Thornton and Gooch said in the letter.
Many employees chose to ignore the threat.
“I never took more sick calls in my life than today,” Dean Joyce, a supervisor at a Market Basket warehouse in Tewksbury, told the crowd at the rally. “I hope you all feel better.”
Employees said so many warehouse workers joined the protests that the supermarkets did not receive their normal deliveries Friday. Steve Paulenka, an operations supervisor and organizer of the protests, said just three of the normal load of 75 deliveries were made by Friday afternoon.
At the Market Basket in Burlington, for example, the shelves in the aisles appeared full as usual, with fresh-baked cakes in the bakery, and the lobster tank fully stocked.
But in the back storage areas, the inventory was beginning to thin out; a room normally packed with seafood was down to just two crates. Only outside suppliers, such as Pepsico and Coca-Cola, were delivering products, acting store director Shawn Dwyer said.
“Produce will go first; meats would be the next to really suffer,” Dwyer added.
Of the Burlington store’s normal complement of 200 workers, Dwyer estimated that 50 to 60 did not show up for work, choosing instead to attend the rally.
Market Basket workers are not unionized, but the protesters said their actions were protected by a federal labor law that prevents employers from disciplining employees for collectively complaining about work conditions.
Still, labor experts said they were astounded by the Market Basket protest, with one saying it was “bizarre” that workers would put their jobs on the line to press for the return of an departed boss.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, quite frankly, in my lifetime,” said David Twomey, a professor of labor and employment law at the Boston College Carroll School of Management who has taught for 46 years.
Twomey said that under the National Labor Relations Act “employees are protected but management is not,” meaning the store managers and supervisors at headquarters are at greater risk of losing their jobs for joining the protest.
Ron Seeber, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, agreed that protesting Market Basket workers, particularly managers, had no real protection.
The new Demoulas leadership, Seeber said, “could fire everybody, and there’s nothing preventing them from doing that, except that it might ultimately be a self-defeating act.” It depends on how customers react.
“Consumers would be on the razor’s edge here on whether they think it’s worthwhile,” he said. “It’s difficult to tell ahead of time who they’ll blame.”
Market Basket employees, of course, are hoping shoppers will side with them. On the website wearemarketbasket.com, protesters had posted a letter to customers asking for understanding and support.
“Every day that we go to work it is with you in mind and today is no different,” the workers wrote. “We firmly believe that the firing of Arthur T. Demoulas and his management team is simply the start of a process which will lead to dismantling of Market Basket as we know it . . . we cannot sit back and be silent.”
Jenn Pierrelouis, a customer from Waltham, did her normal shopping Friday at the Burlington store despite the dispute because she appreciates the chain’s low prices.
“I feel badly,” Pierrelouis said, adding the feud between the Demoulas cousins “is putting a lot of people in a tough position. They’re being forced to choose between their jobs and their company.”
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