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Personal touches won loyalty at Market Basket

Company’s culture seen as a modern-day rarity

It’s no wonder that the recent protests staged by employees of the Market Basket grocery chain resonate with so many people. From the characters to the setting, it is a quintessential American drama.

At Market Basket, the same folks have been dishing out cold cuts, stocking the produce aisles, and running the checkout counters for years. Some employees met their spouses there, and children follow parents into the business. Employees identify with the company’s family culture. To customers, they’re neighbors or friends, even relatives.

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Moreover, Market Basket represents an increasingly rare business culture, one where workers are unusually well paid and willing to put their jobs on the line to force the reinstatement of a beloved boss who made them feel valued. All this at a time when most workers fret about job security and don’t know who owns their companies.

“We have a corporate culture in the US where most workers are living somewhere between anxiety and boredom,” said Erik Gregory, who directs the organizational and leadership psychology program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. “Demoulas has created a family environment, and they want to hold on to that. It’s important today, when a lot of companies don’t appear to have your back.”

So we have the unusual scene of rank-and-file employees staging picket lines outside Market Basket stores, and urging customers to spend their money at the competition until the board of directors reverses the firing of Arthur T. Demoulas. Demoulas was forced out as president in June by members of his own feuding family, including archrival cousin Arthur S. Demoulas.

The boycott has nearly paralyzed the 71-store chain, enlisting the backing of thousands of loyal customers who are passionate about Market Basket’s low prices — and willing to join the boycott if it helps the employees who oversee it all.

So why, exactly, is a group of middle-class workers risking or sacrificing their livelihoods for a multimillionaire executive who will suffer no great hardship in unemployment? The most common refrain heard from employees concerns some small kindness from Arthur T. Demoulas.

Steve Paulenka, one of eight managers fired for participating in the protest, talks about the interest Arthur T. Demoulas took in his autistic son, Joe, after the boy broke two front teeth and needed reconstructive surgery. For weeks after the accident, Demoulas would ask about the boy whenever he saw Paulenka.

“Not, ‘Who is making payroll?’ but, ‘How’s Joe?’ ” recalled Paulenka.

Larry Frost, a cashier at a Billerica Market Basket, wore black tape on his badge last week, saying he is mourning the ouster of Arthur T. Demoulas)

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Larry Frost, a cashier at a Billerica Market Basket, wore black tape on his badge last week, saying he is mourning the ouster of Arthur T. Demoulas

But there is another important factor: The pay is generous enough that managers and supervisors can easily make into the six figures as they advance up the corporate ladder.

The pay for hourly workers is hardly extravagant, but high by supermarket standards — more than $40,000 for experienced cashiers, while full-time clerks start at $12 an hour, well above the minimum wage.

Most workers can also regularly count on receiving tidy bonuses, typically doled out four times per year, that can amount to an extra six to eight weeks of pay.

In the grocery industry, “typically there are no bonuses for clerks,” said Kevin Griffin, publisher of the Griffin Report of Food Marketing, a trade publication for the food industry. “Do you get a bonus every quarter? Nobody does. But at Market Basket, everybody does.”

Market Basket also contributes an amount equivalent to 15 percent of each employee’s pay to a retirement plan, and some longtime workers retire with more than $1 million in savings.

Solid pay. A boss who cares. It’s not exactly a magic formula.

“We must ask whether the workers’ grievances are about much more than reinstating a popular CEO,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “If you peek behind the large signs and pictures of Arthur T., you might see that the underlying problem — one of workers’ resentment and insecurity [without him] — is the real issue.”

Indeed, employees’ impassioned speeches exhorting Market Basket to bring back Demoulas are laced with unease about their own futures. Among the fears is that his relatives will cut wages and benefits in order to pay themselves even more or, worse, sell to some soulless chain that will turn Market Basket into just another indifferent employer.

“Market Basket employees think that without Arthur T., they won’t be able to hold on to their values and will fall into a vicious cycle,” said Zeynep Ton, a professor of operations management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who visited the picket lines this week. “I don’t blame them for fighting to keep the integrity of their business.”

The company’s board, which includes representatives of the two warring factions of the Demoulas family, will meet Friday afternoon at the Prudential Center in Boston. Workers plan to present a petition with more than 40,000 signatures in support of “Artie T,” as they affectionately call him. Another large rally is scheduled for 9 a.m. in Tewksbury, where Market Basket is based.

Erin Ailworth and Casey Ross of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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