TEWKSBURY — Yellow caution tape tied to overturned Market Basket carriages cordoned off the wide swath of parking lot at Stadium Plaza where thousands of protestors gathered to call for the return of ousted grocery chain president Arthur T. Demoulas. They waved signs, tooted horns, and cheered in support of the executive, who was fired in late June.
Monday’s rally came a day after eight senior employees, several of them organizers of the protest campaign, were terminated from their jobs.
Organizer Steve Paulenka, a former facilities and operations supervisor for the chain who was fired Sunday, put the crowd at around 5,000. “This is the best I’ve felt in three weeks,” he said. “This is the first time I’m starting to feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is the sun and not a train. I’m not here alone.”
Addressing the crowd, Paulenka called on workers to take their signs and their fervor and protest outside of stores.
“You go back to your stores. Shut it down,” he told the cheering crowd, which waved signs, shouted, and tooted horns.
Once the rally ended, employees headed to the nearby Burlington store to set up picket lines and attempt to turn customers away.
Former warehouse supervisor Dean Joyce, the first employee to be fired Sunday, told the crowd his termination only strengthened his resolve.
“I am more now with Market Basket than I ever was. I am on fire,” he said. “We’re looking for one thing — one thing only — to bring Arthur T. back.”
Other speakers included Democratic state senators Barry R. Finegold of Andover and Eileen M. Donoghue of Lowell, who are among 35 state lawmakers who have signed a letter calling for a boycott of Market Basket.
“You are what is good about America,” Donoghue told the crowd. “We are going to stand with you, we are going to fight with you.”
The protests and the firings are the latest development in a remarkable public dispute over leadership of the grocery chain, which has 71 stores in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. On Friday, about 2,000 people gathered at the chain’s headquarters in Tewksbury to support the ousted president. Workers are demanding the return of Arthur T. Demoulas, who was fired in late June by a board controlled by his cousin and chief rival, Arthur S. Demoulas. For decades, the two have feuded over control of the company, which was started by their grandfather.
The employees fired Sunday include managers at the company’s Tewksbury headquarters who have helped organize the protests.
Among those fired were Tom Gordon, a grocery supervisor with 39 years at the chain; buyers Jim Lacourse, with 30 years, and Joe Garon, with 49 years; Steve Paulenka, a facilities and operations supervisor, with 40 years; and deli supervisor and buyer Mike Kettenbach, the 33-year-old nephew of Arthur T. Demoulas. Paulenka, Lacourse, and Gordon met with the Globe last week to go public with a campaign to reinstate Demoulas. Also fired Sunday were Tom Trainor, a distribution supervisor with 41 years at the company, operations supervisor Joe Schmidt, and warehouse supervisor Dean Joyce.
Paulenka, who said he got his notice at about 6:30 p.m. Sunday by courier, said the new executives hired by the board of directors are “hired guns” who “just don’t get” the close culture and loyalty of Market Basket employees. New co-chief executives Felicia Thornton and James F. Gooch were brought in from the outside — Thornton is a former finance chief for Albertsons supermarkets, and Gooch previously served as president of RadioShack Corp.
In the stores, stretches of shelving that normally contains fruits and vegetables are barren, and supplies of some other goods were dwindling as deliveries from the chain’s warehouse have ground to a halt.
The company’s board of directors was scheduled to hold a phone meeting about employees’ demands Monday.
“What a mess,” said Richard Nicolazzo, managing partner of Nicolazzo and Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm. “The employees have completely outstrategized management” in this confrontation, he said. “What is the point of having a supermarket without having any goods in it?”
Also Monday, Teamsters union Local 25 in Charlestown offered free legal assistance and advice to any Market Basket employee, including executives at headquarters, who is fired for supporting the return of Arthur T. Demoulas. “I applaud all of the employees for taking a stand and the thousand of shoppers who have taken their business elsewhere as a sign of solidarity with the employees,” Local 25 President Sean M. O’Brien said in a statement. Local 25 represents more than 11,000 workers in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.