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Market Basket workers rally in Tewksbury for ‘Artie T.’

TEWKSBURY -- Workers and their families arrived by carload and busload at the Market Basket parking lot in Stadium Plaza for the largest rally yet in the weeklong uprising in support of ousted Market Basket chief executive Arthur T. Demoulas.

Organizers estimated 15,000 people gathered under cloudless, sunny skies to voice their support for Demoulas and eight executives who were fired Sunday by new management aligned with Arthur S. Demoulas, a cousin of Arthur T. Demoulas who took control of the $4.6 billion family business last month. Unofficial police estimates pegged the crowd at 6,000 to 7,000.

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State Senator Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat who has collected the support of more than 100 political leaders from Massachusetts and New Hampshire on a petition calling for the return of Arthur T. Demoulas, addressed the crowd, as did Lowell Mayor Rodney M. Elliott.

“This is not about us,” Finegold told the crowd, referring to politicians. “This is about you.”

Steve Paulenka, one of the chief organizers of the rally and a longtime Market Basket employee who was fired by the company’s new leadership, exhorted the crowd: “Nothing’s changed. We stay where we are, doing what we’re doing, until they return our leader.”

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Protesters in the crowd carried hand-lettered signs such as “Former 40-year customer” and wearing “Artie T.” ties were excited to show their support, but anxious for their futures as the 71-store chain has been all but shut down by the grassroots movement to regain control of the company and support eight executives who were fired Sunday by the new management.

“We’re not doing it for money, we’re not here for benefits, not any of that. Bring the boss back, that’s all we want,” said Mike Pieslak, an assistant manager at the Bellingham store. He, his wife, and daughter have worked for Market Basket for a total of 70 years.

George Koumantzelis, a musician from Lowell who attended the rally, said he grew up on the same street as Arthur T. Demoulas and went to grade school with Arthur S. Demoulas. As someone who grew up shopping at the original Demoulas store on Dummer Street in Lowell, he has participated in this week’s boycott. “Absolutely,” he said. “I support Artie T.”

Koumantzelis had fond memories of his school years with Arthur S. Demoulas. “He was a good kid,” Koumantzelis said. “But this is about more than family. This is about pure capitalism versus corrupt corporatism.” Arthur T. Demoulas, he said, “treats his workers right.”

The Demoulas family has been locked in a decades-long battle for the company, ignited by the death of Arthur S. Demoulas’s father, George, in 1971. The board of directors of the chain, which has 25,000 employees and estimated annual revenue of $4.6 billion, gathered at the law offices of Ropes & Gray Friday to consider the fate of the chain. The Globe reported Friday that several offers, in the range of $2.8 billion to $3.3 billion, have been made for the company in recent months, including one from Arthur T. Demoulas to assume full ownership of the family company.

Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.
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