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Thousands of workers and customers at the troubled Market Basket supermarket chain shouted "Bring him back!" Tuesday at a boisterous rally designed to pressure management to reinstate the company's fired chief executive or accept his offer to buy the New England chain.
The rally outside a Market Basket store in Tewksbury was the fourth large demonstration workers have held since Arthur T. Demoulas was fired in June by a board controlled by his cousin and rival, Arthur S. Demoulas.
Over the last two weeks, hundreds of warehouse workers and drivers have refused to make deliveries to the family-owned chain's 71 stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, leaving stock severely depleted and prompting customers to shop at other grocery stores. Market Basket, based in Tewksbury, is known for its low prices.
“Our resolve has galvanized to something a lot firmer than it was,” fired Market Basket employee Steve Paulenka told WBUR before the rally. “The customer boycott, the employee resolve is just insurmountable. The customers aren’t coming back until we come back, and we’re not coming back until the boss comes back.”
The rally had the atmosphere of an outdoor rock festival, as participants threw beach balls high in the air and music blasted from large speakers set up along the parking lot.
Workers carried signs with blown-up photographs of Arthur T. Demoulas, while loyal shoppers carried signs saying, "We are the customers. We quit."
"We shall never back down ... we shall not rest until Arthur T. Demoulas is brought back as our president," Joe Schmidt told the crowd. Schmidt was one of eight middle managers fired by the company after they organized the first protests.
Workers hope that Arthur S. Demoulas' side of the family will accept an offer from his cousin to buy the company. The board has said it is considering that offer as well as others.
Steve Distasio, manager of the Market Basket store in Raynham, spent his day off attending the rally with his two children and his niece. He said 30 to 40 other workers at his store also came.
"We're here to support Artie T.," he said. "It's the only way to get the company back and running right."
T.J. Cauley, an assistant produce manager at a Market Basket store in Seabrook, N.H., said he has been protesting outside his store with other workers on his breaks and days off for the past two weeks. He said he knows he could end up losing his job.
"I have concerns, but at the same time I will take the risk because this company has provided me with everything I've needed for the last 11 years," he said. "Artie T. has made the company what it is. He's genuinely interested in the associates as well as the customers."
Lisa Hultgren, a customer who has shopped at market basket for 25 years, said she came to the rally to show her support for the workers.
"It's one of the few grocery store chains where you can see the same people working there week after week, year after year," she said. "They're nice people. It's a very small town feeling you get in the stores."
On Monday, the two co-CEOs appointed to replace Arthur T. Demoulas stepped up their efforts to fight back against the workers' revolt and customer boycott.
Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch said they heard from many employees who were "concerned for their safety" if they attended a job fair aimed at recruiting workers to replace those who have walked off their jobs. They said they would allow employees to apply for new jobs through email because they feel "associates interested in opportunity should be given an opportunity without fear of intimidation or harassment."
Paulenka said that about 200 employees and customers protested peacefully outside the job fair Monday.
“That whole thing just furthers the resolve we were just talking about,” Paulenka said. “This is going til it’s done. We’ve said from the beginning we have one demand. We only have one demand, and that’s for Arthur T. to come back.”
Jack Demoulas, a cousin of Arthur S. Demoulas and Arthur T. Demoulas and the grocery chain's dairy and frozen food director, urged workers on Monday to return to their jobs and let the dueling sides "work this out." He said the protests are hurting the company and have "made a public circus out of a private dispute."
With reporting from the Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom.