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Market Basket workers picket, defy job threat

Many stay out; job fair draws few applicants

ANDOVER — Market Basket employees remained defiant Monday, refusing to return to work despite management threats they would be replaced and holding a boisterous demonstration at a company job fair, where few applicants showed up.

Negotiations over a possible sale of the company, meanwhile, failed to produce any sign of a deal. Arthur T. Demoulas, whose ouster as company president spurred the job actions, has offered to buy the shares of rival family members. But the board, controlled by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, has said only that it is evaluating bids from multiple suitors.

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Employees held two separate demonstrations. At the company’s Tewksbury headquarters, at least 200 workers protested, asserting that management’s efforts to break the walkout have failed. Later, about 60 demonstrated outside the job fair, which was held at company offices in Andover.

Attendees of the job fair arrived to protesters’ taunts of “Scab!” “Don’t cross the line!” and “They’re just going to fire you later.”

Only a handful of applicants visited the job fair. The supermarket company’s management sought to find replacements for employees who, in solidarity with Arthur T. Demoulas, have refused to work.

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Among the protesters was Buddy Wenners, a truck driver who took photographs of entering cars and security personnel. He denied he was trying to intimidate job applicants, noting that security guards working for the company were filming the protesters. “All’s fair in love and war. This is war,” Wenners said. “We’re Boy Scouts compared to other strikers.”

Last week, co-chief executives Felicia Thornton and James Gooch asked employees to return to work Monday or face possible replacement. The refusal to work by many employees has broken Market Basket’s supply chain, leaving stores without fresh produce, meat, fish, and a host of other products. Customer traffic at many stores has dropped precipitously.

Monday’s job fair was held for existing employees who were invited to apply for the jobs of managers and other employees who in protest had stopped working in recent weeks. Hours before the event began, Gooch and Thornton issued a statement expressing concern for the safety of employees planning to attend the job fair.

“We have heard from many associates who are interested in applying for internal positions, but are concerned for their safety if they attend the scheduled Job Fair,” the statement said. “In response to their concerns, we are making available an e-mail address to which associates can apply.”

A spokesperson for Gooch and Thornton said that more employees returned to work Monday, but staffing remained well below normal levels.

Employees have placed themselves in the middle of the fight over the company’s ownership and management that has lasted for more than two decades. The family waged an epic legal battle in the 1990s, when a judge ruled that Arthur T.’s father, Telemachus, defrauded Arthur S. and other relatives out of their shares in the company. A judge also found that Arthur T.’s side of the family improperly transferred assets into entities that they controlled.

In recent years, Arthur S. has continued to accuse Arthur T. of ignoring the company’s board, spending money recklessly, and engaging in real estate transactions that benefited himself over the company. Most of the real estate accusations were found to be meritless by a retired judge hired to review them in 2012.

Arthur T. has argued that Arthur S. has repeatedly trumped up allegations to take control of the company, to increase distributions to himself and other family shareholders at the expense of employees and customers.

Arthur S. last year gained control of the board of directors, which fired Arthur T. in June. Protests, walkouts, and rallies attracting thousands of employees and customers followed.

Protesting workers said they were happy with the sparse attendance Monday at the job fair. “The people who have gone in are the people who have been going in anyway,” said Tom Trainor, one of eight senior Market Basket employees fired shortly after the protests began. “Nobody new walked in.”

Bob Medeiros, a district supervisor, was one of more than 50 employees to receive a letter last week telling him that his August paycheck would be withheld unless he reported to work on Monday.

But Medeiros, who said he has been making the rounds of stores he supervises, said he would continue to protest. “I sent them an e-mail this morning,” he said, “I wanted to know why I didn’t receive my check.”

Joe Ambash, managing partner of Fisher & Phillips, a Boston firm specializing in labor law, said companies can legally withhold the pay of employees who do not show up for work. But under the law, Ambash said, the company cannot simply fire rank-and-file workers who are on strike. Managers do not have the same protections.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said they have received no specific complaints alleging labor law violations in the Demoulas dispute, but continue to monitor the standoff closely.

Market Basket stores, meanwhile, remained quiet. Stephanie Schwechheimer, who manages a store in Haverhill, said only two customer cars were in the parking lot. Her store had not received a delivery in more than a week, she said.

“This company is just being run by the seat of its pants. It’s just anarchy,” she said. “This is about as bad as it gets.”

Protest organizers have called for a rally to be held at Stadium Plaza in Tewksbury Tuesday at 11 a.m. Organizers have said they expect 15,000 attendees.

But some employees expressed concern Monday about how long the protests can continue. Although many said they believe Arthur T.’s bid for the company would be successful, some warehouse workers and drivers who have stayed out of work said their resolve — or bank accounts — would run out in a matter of days or weeks.

“I’m not hurting yet,” said Gary Liles, a warehouse employee from Salem, N.H., at the job fair protest. “I could go for another week, and I’m hoping it’s done this week.”

Callum Borchers of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Casey Ross can be reached at casey.ross@globe.com
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