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Steven Syre

Market Basket dispute resonates beyond supermarket aisles

I am one of those people who is naturally inclined to tell Market Basket supermarket employees to shut up and go back to work.

I didn’t think managers had any right to walk off their jobs — and expect to keep them — just because the megamillionaire chief executive they liked was recently canned by equally rich relatives who now control the company. Employees carrying big signs portraying the ousted Arthur T. Demoulas in Obamaesque “I believe” fashion struck me as surreal.

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But I was impressed by the thousands of people who turned out for yet another rally on Monday calling for the reinstatement of the fired CEO, not to mention other managers who had helped organize an employee walkout in stores and warehouses last week.

RELATED | Shirley Leung: Put an end to the Market Basket revolt

I was struck by a photo of Yogesh Patel, a janitor at the Billerica Market Basket. He was part of the crowd listening to speakers that included Steve Paulenka, a facilities and operations manager who had been fired over the weekend, presumably for his part in organizing the walkout in support of Arthur T. Demoulas.

Yes, the rally was the kind of manufactured event that deserves your skepticism. But the sheer scale and energy behind it told you something real was happening. Thousands of customers followed approvingly on social media.

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Over the years, I have followed labor walkouts like the one that has left so many shelves bare at Market Baskets in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Yogesh Patel of Billerica, a janitor at store 170 in Billerica, cheered at a rally in support of former Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.

But they have all been about money or working conditions or — occasionally — social issues. Demands to return the chief executive favored by employees are something new.

But those calls for Arthur T. resonate beyond supermarket aisles because people can relate to a powerful theme behind them.

It’s all about fears that good, middle-class jobs will be threatened by owners who want to squeeze money out of an established, successful business.

RELATED: Market Basket management paying for missteps in standoff

That’s an easy narrative for people to grasp — and for politicians to line up behind. Pols had to take a number to get on the bandwagon by the end of last week.

The company that runs the Market Basket supermarkets is privately owned by two factions of the Demoulas family who have been at each other’s throats for decades. They are led by Arthur T. Demoulas and his archrival, cousin Arthur S. Demoulas.

The details of their battles have been spelled out here before. The really important facts: Arthur T. ran the Market Basket business for years, but remained at odds with his cousin. Arthur S. recently took control of the company’s board, which fired Arthur T.

Market Basket has long been known for two things. Its low prices attracted a rabidly devoted following. The good wages and benefits it paid created a loyal and long-serving workforce.

People went to work for Market Basket and stayed there. It’s not unusual to run into many employees who have been on the payroll for 20 years, 30 years, and even 40. Rivals say they could poach employees from other competitors, but rarely from Market Basket.

The first time Arthur S. tried to fire his cousin — about a year ago — it became clear he represented some of the company’s nine shareholders who wanted more cash from the business they owned but did not run.

RELATED: Ousted Market Basket leader urges worker rehirings

At that time, Arthur T. survived as chief executive (thanks partly to employee protests) but the board soon approved a $300 million cash distribution to stockholders.

Recently, Arthur S. tried a second time and succeeded in removing Arthur T. as chief executive. Two outsiders were installed as the company’s top executives.

Employees are rightly worried that directors will now find new ways to extract more cash from Market Basket.

Investment bankers call them “liquidity events.” That can mean all kinds of things — up to and including a sale of the business. None of the options would sound very good if you were one of those workers who helped build the chain.

The Demoulas family stockholders own the company and their votes decide what happens there.

But rebelling employees are making a point in ways that get the attention of those owners – with crowds of supportive customers online and empty shelves in stores.

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