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Shirley Leung

Market Basket fight hits poorest shoppers

CHELSEA — As the feuding Arthurs and other wealthy Demoulases take their sweet time deciding the fate of Market Basket, have they forgotten about Norma Morales?

She lives on a fixed income and food stamps, and the massive Market Basket here was the place to go to save a few bucks. But empty shelves and employee protests about the ouster of their beloved boss, Arthur T. Demoulas, are forcing her to shop elsewhere. She’s way over her food budget, which means other bills might not get paid this month.

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“They should take care of us,” said Morales, 62, as she loaded groceries into her trunk after a trip to her local Stop and Compare market.

Offering low prices is a key part of the Market Basket chain’s recipe for success, but so is operating in low-income communities. The family-owned company shrewdly located stores in so-called gateway cities — Brockton, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford — where the real estate was cheap and opportunity exponential.

So the tragedy here might not be Greek at all. It’s the fact that customers who can least afford to put up with the turmoil are the ones suffering the most.

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“Those families are now casualties, innocent bystanders in the war that is now taking place,” said Jay Ash, city manager of Chelsea, where one in four live in poverty.

The Chelsea Market Basket, a gleaming food emporium like no other, now looks like it belongs in a ghost town. Produce is scarce, bare shelves abound, employees outnumber customers. Usually, every day is like the Saturday before Christmas.

‘Let’s be serious. This is food. People need to eat.’

Andrew Marroquin,  Market Basket customer 
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But sure enough, the few shoppers navigating the aisles Wednesday didn’t have the means to boycott Market Basket on principle. They brushed past a line of rebellious workers out front and Artie T. posters plastered on the freezer cases inside.

Andrew Marroquin of Revere didn’t care much for the demonstration, pushing a cart full of nonperishables from instant Nissin noodles to Spam. He knew all about the infighting and that many employees vowed not to return unless Market Basket reinstalled Arthur T.

Marroquin, 24, shook his head at the absurdity of it all. When did grocery shopping become such a political statement?

“Let’s be serious,” he said. “This is food. People need to eat.”

What started out as workers battling for what they believe in has devolved into a squabble among rich owners counting their millions and Market Basket customers watching their pennies.

“Unlike us, they have money coming in,” said Dan Sheehan, 69, a former postal worker from Charlestown. “We have to worry about our money and next meal.”

Sheehan and his wife usually spend about $50 to $75 a week on groceries, but he estimates that number has doubled since they started going to Stop & Shop. They’ve had to cut back on expensive items, like fish and meat, so they can stick to a budget.

The retiree returned to Market Basket on Wednesday for the first time since the employee unrest began three weeks ago. He did so because he felt enough was enough. His message to Arthur T.? “It’s time to tell the people to come back to work.”

To return to the helm, Arthur T. has proposed buying out his rival cousin, Arthur S. and his family, but that side has rebuffed efforts to do a deal quickly.

Instead, the 71-store chain, whose board is controlled by Arthur S., is entertaining other bids, including an offer from the owner of Hannaford supermarkets.

As negotiations drag on, Market Basket is bleeding millions of dollars, forcing management to threaten to replace the chain’s 25,000 employees unless they return to work and get back to business as usual. Hours for many part-timers have been cut to zero. If workers lose their well-paying jobs because they took a stand on what they believe in, it will have been their choice.

Market Basket’s poorest shoppers didn’t have a choice, yet they are paying the price.

Produce has been scarce at the Market Basket in Chelsea, which is one of the biggest grocery stores in the state.

Shirley Leung/Globe Staff

Produce has been scarce at the Market Basket in Chelsea, which is one of the biggest grocery stores in the state.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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