BOSTON — The protests and empty shelves at Market Basket have gained the attention of gubernatorial candidates this election season. With primary day about a month away, the three Democrats and two Republicans running for governor are weighing in on the controversy.
For weeks, Gov. Deval Patrick has remained notably quiet about the drama. But on Wednesday he finally broke that silence, saying he understands the situation has put workers under a “terrible hardship.”
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“The issue in Market Basket is not trivial,” he said. “It is about who the CEO of the company should be and who the employees wish the CEO of the company should be.”
But the governor insisted he does not plan to intervene in the dispute. “That’s a private matter and a private family,” he said.
Republican candidate for governor Mark Fisher said Patrick’s remarks about Market Basket might be one of the few times he has ever agreed with the sitting governor.
Fisher said he admires the spirit of the protesters and likens them to the Tea Party, but “it’s a free market issue, and it’s not a role for government here to play.”
The candidates for governor are in consensus that the grocery store fight is a private matter, but they’ve all been more vocal than the governor himself.
As a candidate, Martha Coakley has adopted a tone similar to her opponents. But as attorney general she has the power to take action in a way the others do not. And while she refuses to take sides, on Thursday she set up a hotline for concerned employees.
“They are a private company, they are entitled within certain bounds to take actions,” she said Thursday, referring to employment decisions current management has taken. “Our point is that we do want employees to know what their rights are and to be able to feel that they will be protected.”
For the other candidates — Republican Charlie Baker and Democrats Steve Grossman and Don Berwick — the issue is clear cut. They all worry about the economic health of the state.
“Twenty-five-thousand people work for Market Basket, and that company is unraveling right in front of our eyes,” Grossman said.
If he were governor, Grossman said he would offer to help.
“It’s a private company, let’s understand that. But governors sometimes get involved even in private company situations to try to resolve them, to try to be a mediator,” he said.
Former Medicare administrator and fellow Democrat Berwick essentially agrees.
“I think what I would do is on a private basis, a confidential basis — not trying to exercise an official role, but to have a conversation, pick up the phone, call these people and say, ‘Can you please work this out, and is there anything I can do to help?’” Berwick said.
In perhaps a strange political moment, the most progressive Democrat on the ticket is offering a solution nearly identical to Republican Charlie Baker.
“As governor, I would reach out, I would do it privately,” Baker said. “I don’t think it should be part of the larger public conversation, but I think at this point the governor of Massachusetts should be talking to these people and reminding them that a lot of people have a big stake in this and this needs to get resolved.”
While this private dispute plays out in public, Republicans and Democrats are trying to delicately balance labor and business demands.