THE SAGA of Market Basket’s two Arthurs is the latest chapter in a classic feud over control of a family business.
But it’s also a struggle over image — and who ends up as the “Good Arthur” of the story.
Today, in the court of public opinion, “Good Arthur” is definitely Arthur T. Demoulas, the ousted CEO beloved by workers.
But in an earlier chapter, the one written two decades ago, Arthur T. was “Bad Arthur.” He belonged to the branch of the Demoulas family that swindled the family of Arthur S. Demoulas — then “Good Arthur” — out of its share of the business.
That’s what a jury found in 1994.
After a long-running legal battle that’s legendary for its twists and collateral damage, Arthur S. ultimately reclaimed his family’s interest. A Lawyers Weekly story called the trial and subsequent appeals process “a modern day Hydra: every time one evil head would be severed, two more would sprout in its place.”
At one point during the trial, Arthur T. threw a punch at Arthur S. after his cousin called his father a liar. He was also involved in the hiring of two prominent lawyers who tried to discredit the presiding judge by collecting dirt on her from her law clerk. The law clerk ultimately went to authorities, and the lawyers were disbarred.
But that is ancient history. Today, Arthur T. is a superhero, who has transformed himself from “Darth Vader to Samuel Gompers, hero of the rank and file,” observed Harry Manion, the defense lawyer who represented the law clerk.
Arthur T. should relish this reincarnation as patron saint of grocery workers. To anyone who has watched interviews with employees who have taken to the streets to demand the return of their beloved boss, the accolades sound genuine and deserved.
The outpouring of worker support is said to be spontaneous. Still, a year ago, Arthur T. hired Rasky Baerlein, a local PR shop, to get out his version of what is happening at Market Basket. To their credit, Arthur T.’s narrative now frames the story.
If there’s another side to it, it has not been told by Kekst and Company, the New York firm which represents Arthur S. This week, the co-CEOs who replaced Arthur T. at Market Basket hired another local PR shop, O’Neill & Associates.
They put out a statement saying they share Arthur T.’s values and are committed to Market Basket’s “tradition of excellence and dedication.” It’s too little too late, after cascades of headlines about the firing of employees loyal to Arthur T. and the odes to a fallen, but still very rich boss.
Now, whether Arthur T. is really “Good Arthur” depends on the end game. How much of it is about buffing his image and enjoying the sight of a company in chaos? How much of it is about doing what’s best for Market Basket employees?
The plot thickened on Wednesday, with talk that Arthur T. could offer to buy out Arthur S. Is it a real possibility, or just a way to keep workers on the protest line and, with that, pressure on Arthur S.?
There’s an old saying: When elephants fight, mice get crushed.
In this case, the mice are Market Basket employees who put their livelihoods on the line for Arthur T. It’s nice to believe they can scamper away, but even if they do, will they still have jobs to scamper to?
Arthur T. has urged the company’s new management to reinstate those who were dismissed for organizing protests on his behalf. Privately, he is telling individual workers they shouldn’t sacrifice themselves for him.
If he really cares about all of Market Basket’s employees, he would get the message out to everyone to get back to work. He would promise to use whatever influence he has to ensure the company continues to treat its workers well. He would also remind them their futures depend on a strong company and their efforts on his behalf hurt that.
The shelves are empty and Market Basket customers are finding other places to do their grocery shopping.
Arthur T. has won the PR war for Arthur T. He has vanquished “Bad Arthur” — the one from his own past — and made sure his cousin now owns that title.
It reads like a script for a dark cable show about revenge and hatred that would be fun to watch — but for the real-life mice about to get trampled by the elephants.