WBUR

Shelves Empty As Market Basket Employees Bring Dispute To Stores

At the Somerville Market Basket, produce shelves were empty, but most of the rest of the store was still full stocked. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The produce aisles were mostly empty at the Somerville Market Basket on Tuesday, as employees protested out front. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Market Basket locations were mostly empty Tuesday, as customers heeded requests from employees calling for a boycott until ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas is reinstated.

In their first statement since the weekend, the two new Market Basket CEOs, Felicia Thornton and James Gooch, urged employees to return their focus to the “customers, their needs and expectations.”

“We understand the strain and emotion facing Market Basket associates. We know and understand that trust and acceptance are earned and cannot be demanded or imposed,” the statement read. “We are committed to earning the trust and acceptance of our associates and Market Basket’s customers and hope that our associates will judge us not on our promises, but on our actions as we move forward.”

Outside the Burlington store Tuesday afternoon, about 15 employees were joking, cheering and telling customers to stay away.

“Do not shop here, please!” one shouted.

The workers are not on strike. The store is still fully staffed. It’s just not stocked.

“We usually get four produce trucks between Friday and Saturday. We didn’t receive one truck at all on Friday or Saturday,” said Mark Lambert, a manager in Reading, where, like many other company stores, produce shelves were barren. “So that’s four tractor trailers full of produce that we didn’t receive.”

Lambert says produce usually generates $65,000 in sales per day. Since deliveries stopped coming in, sales have averaged less than a quarter of that.

“[Overall], we’re down $251,856 over last week.”

That $250,000 figure, Lambert says, is just from Sunday and Monday. Add Saturday and Tuesday to the mix, and that store — just one of the company’s 71 — is looking at nearly $500,000 in lost revenue.

Employees elsewhere say the situation is similar.

The Burlington store says it’s gotten only half of its scheduled deliveries since Friday, none of it produce. What little fresh food is left is quickly going bad — moldy grapefruit, discolored lettuce, apples with growing brown spots.

But almost all of the few customers in the stores say they support the employees.

“I am 100 percent behind the workers,” said Rod Mason, of Lincoln, one of the dozen or so people shopping in Burlington. He added that employees have a right to be angry, given the treatment they received under Arthur T.

“I think they’ve been treated well,” he said. “You know, not the highest-paying jobs in the world, but then again, they do all right.”

Out of roughly 20 customers who spoke with WBUR, only one person thought the employee action was a bad idea.

“I question whether the reaction by the employees isn’t a little extreme,” said Mary Miller, of Lexington. Miller doesn’t care whether Demoulas comes back as CEO or not. But she’s worried the employees calling for a boycott will put Market Basket out of business.

“Frankly, I’m here because I do think Market Basket is going to be gone, and I want to get the last bargains that I can before some high-priced chain takes it over,” Miller said.

Signs urging customers not to shop at the store until Arthur T. was reinstated lined some empty racks in Somerville. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)

Signs urging customers not to shop at the store lined some empty racks in Somerville. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)

Miller said she wants the employees to come back to work, but most of the company’s 21,000 workers are actually still on the job. The employees picketing and collecting petition signatures in front of stores are doing so on their own time.

Inside, the stores are fully staffed, there are just so few customers there’s almost nothing to do. But that doesn’t mean workers aren’t performing small acts of disobedience.

One store had “Boycott Market Basket” written in its front window.

Workers at another location left frozen dairy products out in an unrefrigerated aisle, where they could melt and spoil.

At a third store, one employee said they still had food in the back room, but that workers were told not to restock shelves in protest.

But with so few customers in the stores anyway, manager Rob Harrington says they’ll likely have non-perishables on the shelves for weeks.

“Assuming we had our normal business in here, we wouldn’t last probably a week,” Harrington said. “But the way it’s going right now, we’ll be able to last a few weeks.”

In the statement released Tuesday, Thornton and Gooch also defended their decision to fire eight employees, saying the actions they took significantly harmed the company’s ability to provide good service to its customers.

“Our cashiers and store associates are as important as senior executives,” the statement said. “We took the difficult step of termination only after we saw no alternative. We are committed to continuing the tradition of excellence and dedication that has been built over several decades.”

Meantime, there appears to be no movement on either side toward a resolution. Steve Paulenka, one of the fired employees, says workers have gathered more than 100,000 signatures to reinstate their former CEO.

Thornton and Gooch are expected to meet with the company’s board on Friday.

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