Grocery chain workers fight for millionaire CEO

A shopper browses shelves at a supermarket.

One of the country’s most successful regional grocery chains is holding a job fair on Monday.  Massachusetts-based Market Basket is looking to replace employees who’ve been holding protests and asking customers to boycott its stores.

Two weeks into the rallies, it’s like the aftermath of a snowstorm in New England - dozens of Market Basket stores with slim pickings and few customers.

It's not low wages or high prices the workers are upset about; they just want their old boss back. Ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas famously kept prices low and paid a living wage, plus provided good benefits and profit-sharing.  Now, workers and Market Basket customers alike worry the company's new leaders, under "Artie T's" cousin, will change all that.

"This is not a protest against the company, it’s a protest to save the company," says Thomas Kochan, Co-Director of MIT’s Institute for Work and Employment Research. "You have store managers, clerical employees, and warehouse workers all coalescing together to take this action. That's unprecedented."

Market Basket’s new CEOs say they'll welcome those workers back, and the company won't change its "unmatched compensation and benefits." But they warn that employees who keep up the protest could lose pay, and even their jobs.

"There's definitely a tension between the competing interests and priorities of shareholders, employees and customers," says Katherine Smith, Executive Director of theCenter for Corporate Citizenship  at Boston College.

She says shareholders of profitable companies like Market Basket have a rightful expectation to liquidity, but Smith adds that the low cost chain won its edge in part by putting employees ahead of profits.

"More and more we see companies struggling with the question of not only am I helping to create the world I want to do business in, but also the world I want to live in," she says.

Whichever way Market Basket goes, Smith says CEOs around the country are watching. 


CLARIFICATION: This story was clarified to better reflect Katherine Smith's analysis of Market Basket's responsibility to its shareholders.

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