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Market Basket managers key to stores, protests

The managers at the Burlington store are dutifully reporting to work each day.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The managers at the Burlington store are dutifully reporting to work each day.

Over the two weeks of protests at Market Basket, Glenn Connors has not missed a day of work as manager of the Brockton store. Yet next week the grocery chain will hold a job fair to find candidates for store managers and their assistants, suggesting that Connors — and dozens of his colleagues — are at risk of losing their jobs.

Connors said he is confused by what appears to be contradictory statements from the company: Market Basket has said it will not fire any employee who shows up for work by Monday, but it is nonetheless advertising for store managers . . . who are showing up for work.

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“I’m in the store,” Connors said Thursday. “I’m working like I should. It’s certainly not business as usual. But, I don’t know.”

The 71 store managers and their assistants — about 180 in total — are crucial to the success Market Basket enjoys among its fiercely loyal customers. They are also important field officers in the worker uprising to reinstate Arthur T. Demoulas, and it is hard to imagine that the protest movement would have become so successful without their active support.

They have either helped organize or backed the picket lines outside their stores, encouraged customers to take their business elsewhere, and publicly spoken out against the new bosses who replaced Demoulas. And earlier this week, nearly all signed a petition promising to quit if the family feud isn’t resolved in Demoulas’s favor.

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Yet despite the remarkable show of disloyalty to the current powers in charge, the managers and their assistants have dutifully reported for work every day, keeping their employees busy cleaning and fussing with the empty stores. If the rival Demoulas faction that now controls Market Basket hopes to recover from the crisis, it would be unwise to fire managers who are essential to the company’s daily functioning, said Ron Seeber, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

“They’re sacrificing the future in a huge way, and they need to be careful about that,” Seeber said. “People have been supporting the efforts of employees, and I think it’s reasonably clear that if they tried to fire everybody there would be blowback.”

Market Basket has scheduled a job fair for Aug. 4 to 6, and among the positions advertised are store directors, or managers, and assistant directors.

A spokesman said the company is interviewing managerial candidates in case current managers carry through on their threat to quit if Demoulas is not reinstated.

On Thursday, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and her counterpart in New Hampshire warned Market Basket executives they will be closely following how the company handles replacing workers to ensure it complies with labor laws. Coakley is running for governor this year.

David Lewin, a professor of management at the University of California Los Angeles, said Market Basket must be careful not to infringe on employees’ right to act collectively. But he also said that disloyalty of the kind on display at the stores can have a high price.

“If workers say, ‘We’re going to show up, but we’re going to encourage people to shop elsewhere,’ that’s insubordination, and they can be fired for that,” Lewin said.

It is unclear whether the executives and board members installed by Arthur S. Demoulas, Arthur T.’s cousin and rival, will be satisfied if store managers show up for work but continue to feed the protest movement. The company declined to comment on how it will handle dissent among workers on the job, but it issued a broad response to the warning from Coakley and New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster.

“We have said several times that we hope sincerely that we do not discharge any employees,” the chain’s new chief executives, James Gooch and Felicia Thornton, said in a statement. “We want our associates back. We are focused solely on getting Market Basket stores back up and running for our customers and, importantly, for the many local vendors that rely on Market Basket to make their own businesses successful for the sake of their employees. We respect the attorneys general’s position, and would of course follow all applicable laws.”

The job fair may also be a test of the protesting workers’ resolve, as the first two days of interviews are reserved for existing current Market Basket employees interested in the new positions that may come open — such as those manager jobs that pay a pretty hefty salary.

Veteran Market Basket managers are paid upward of $140,000 to $150,000 a year, a big jump from a midlevel position such as grocery manager, which can pay in the high five-figures.

Paul Gauthier, manager of the Market Basket in Westford, predicted his co-workers will not play into what he said is a divide-and-conquer strategy.

“We are so committed to this that most people will not accept a promotion unless it’s given by Arthur T.,” Gauthier said.

Some managers warned that it will not be so easy for Market Basket to replace them. Many have been at Market Basket for years, decades even, working their way from one department to the next and acquiring a deep knowledge of how the supermarket works — and what to do when it doesn’t.

A good manager must be willing to put in 55-hour weeks, know the proper temperature for storing every product, handle complaints and shoplifters, and even possess basic first-aid skills in case of an emergency. When a refrigeration unit melts down at 2 a.m., it is the manager who has to respond to an alarm and get a technician on-site in the middle of the night.

“Just because you have retail experience, it doesn’t prepare you in any way for this type of job,” said Stephanie Schwechheimer, manager of the Market Basket in Haverhill for six years. If the company’s new executives fire store-level managers, she said, “they’re going to have to learn the hard way” how difficult it can be to run the stores.

But Katherine Klein, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said the employees run a big risk calling management’s bluff.

“My read is that they believe these workers are replaceable,” Klein said. “I don’t think this is an idle threat.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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