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Ousted Market Basket leader urges worker rehirings

Call comes as protests grow, supplies dwindle at stores

Speaking publicly for the first time since his firing, former Market Basket president Arthur T. Demoulas on Monday urged the company’s new management to reinstate longtime employees who were dismissed for organizing protests on his behalf.

With thousands of employees, customers, and supporters again rallying earlier in the day, Demoulas said it has been particularly painful to see the stores he labored over for years running out of food. The produce, meat, and seafood aisles in some stores are empty.

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“This company is my passion,” Demoulas said in an interview with the Globe. “It’s the life’s work of my dad and myself and a lot of other people. We’re very proud of what we’ve built together and of the culture that we’ve established.”

Locked in a bitter feud with his cousin that has spawned decades of lawsuits, Demoulas was careful in his remarks and declined to discuss his own dismissal last month or the future of the company. Instead, he expressed dismay at seeing employees who worked there for most of their lives be dismissed for supporting him.

Arthur T. Demoulas

family photo

Arthur T. Demoulas

RELATED: Statement by Arthur T. Demoulas

“I love these people very much,” he said simply. “It’s been a very difficult time for the hard-working associates of the company this past few weeks.”

Meanwhile, the board of directors, under the control of his cousin and rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, held a meeting Monday afternoon following another day of loud protests.

Neither Arthur S. Demoulas nor executives of the parent company, Demoulas Super Markets Inc., would comment.

Since Arthur T.’s firing nearly a month ago, Market Basket has become both a public spectacle and a political cause. The Save Market Basket Facebook page has 40,000 likes. Several online petitions demanding the reinstatement of Arthur T. have attracted more than 16,000 signatures; dozens of Massachusetts lawmakers have pledged to support a boycott of the supermarket. On Monday, the governor of New Hampshire weighed in, urging the supermarket’s leadership to quickly resolve the dispute.

“It’s heartening to see just how much the workers of Market Basket value the company,” Governor Maggie Hassan said in a statement, adding that Market Basket’s management should “quickly address the situation with a focus on keeping their dedicated workers employed and reducing the impact on customers.”

And the congresswoman who represents the district where the company was founded and is still based, US Representative Niki Tsongas, wrote to the chain’s board Monday, saying it is “saddening and troubling” to hear of Demoulas’s dismissal. She asked the directors to reconsider his firing.

Despite the extraordinary amount of comment the dispute has generated, the two millionaire cousins at the heart of the battle have largely remained publicly silent, allowing backers to fight on their behalf.

The origins of the feud date to the early 1970s, when George Demoulas, one of the sons of the company founder, died of a heart attack. His children accused his brother, Telemachus, of stealing their shares in the company — allegations that would eventually embroil the family in a lawsuit two decades later. Since then, the two sides have accused each other of greed, underhanded tactics, even drug abuse and extramarital affairs.

RELATED: The saga of Demoulas’s Market Basket

Despite the infighting — marked by expletive-laced board meetings — the chain has prospered. Today, Market Basket has 71 stores and about 25,000 employees in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. It is reported to have had revenue of $4.6 billion in 2013 and was ranked by Forbes as the 127th largest private company in the United States.

Arthur S. gained control of the company’s board of directors last year and made a series of changes to its management that culminated with his cousin’s firing in June.

While Arthur S. continued his silence Monday, his cousin finally agreed to speak after eight senior employees, including organizers of the protest campaign, were fired over the weekend. Several had worked for Market Basket for more than 40 years.

“In the final analysis, this is not about me,” Arthur T. Demoulas said in a statement after his interview with the Globe. “It is about the people who have proven their dedication over many years and should not have lost their jobs because of it. I urge that they be reinstated in the best interest of the company and our customers.”

One of the fired employees, Joe Garon, a buyer with 49 years at Market Basket, said that Arthur T. Demoulas called him Sunday and asked how he and his wife were holding up.

“He said the important thing is to take care of your health,” Garon said. “I told him I was fine, don’t worry about it — this is our fight, too.”

Beginning around 9 a.m. Monday, thousands of employees, their families and friends, and the grocery’s customers gathered outside a Market Basket in Tewksbury to again call for Arthur T. Demoulas’s return as the company’s president.

RELATED: Thousands rally for ousted CEO

Organizers estimated the crowd at more than 5,000. They had held a similar rally Friday.

One speaker Monday was Rosie Hagopian, an administrative assistant with 41 years at the company, who said the protest was wholly organized by the rank and file.

“Everything we’ve made ourselves, we bought ourselves,” she said of the signs, buttons, and T-shirts sported by many in support of Demoulas. “It’s all for the same cause: to bring Artie T. back to Market Basket . . . . We need to hang tough, we need to have each other’s back because that’s what Artie T. would do for us.”

State Senator Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat, is behind a group of 35 legislators calling for a boycott of Market Basket and backing employees.

“We’re going to stand with your families,” he said.

Richard Cruz, who works in the produce department at a Market Basket in Brockton, said he brought his 6-year-old to the rally to teach him how to stand up for what’s right. The boy, also named Richard Cruz, sported a too-large red Market Basket cap.

The elder Cruz said he has faith in Demoulas because “he is one of us; he knows what’s the struggle.”

Later Monday in the interview with the Globe, Arthur T. expressed appreciation for the outpouring of support from his longtime employees, but he said he doesn’t want to see any more of them fired.

“The commitment must go both ways — from the associates to the company and from the company to the hard-working associates,” he said. “Market Basket is people to me. That’s the most important thing.”

Read the full statement from Arthur T. Demoulas

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com. Erin Ailworth can be reached at erin.ailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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