August 29. 2014 10:12PM

Nashua Market Basket employee: 'Worth every day of work lost'

Union Leader Correspondent

Meat Dept. manager Dan Martell and meat cutter Brian Firoenza of Market Basket Store 13 in Nashua fill out a warehouse order Thursday morning in the hope of having shelves stocked for Labor Day weekend shoppers. (BARBARA TAORMINA/Union Leader Correspondent)

NASHUA — Market Basket workers wasted no time getting back to the stores to stock empty shelves, welcome back customers and re-boot business in the wake of what many are calling a historic victory for labor. The six-week standoff waged by workers who demanded that ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas be reinstated took its toll on the supermarket chain, its employees and its customers, but many said the ordeal was worth it.

Georgia Palmer, a longtime associate at Market Basket’s Store 13 in Nashua, said once the customers threw their support behind the workers, there was no turning back. She said she never doubted that the workers would eventually win the fight.

“Artie T. was worth every day of work I lost,” said Palmer. “He taught us all a lesson without realizing it. When you know you matter at your job, it makes a huge difference.”

Auburn resident Joe Whelan is the director for the Nashua store off the Daniel Webster Highway. He said he was glued to his television Wednesday night, waiting for the announcement that Arthur T.’s reported $1.5 billion offer to buy out rival family members from the privately owned supermarket chain was accepted.

“We got the news around 11 p.m.,” said Whelan, who has been with Market Basket for 26 years. “My whole family was in tears.”

Whelan said a delivery truck was sitting outside the store waiting for the associates first thing Thursday morning.

And while the rush is now on to get the stores back up to speed, Whelan said Market Basket’s corporate culture and Arthur T.’s leadership are fueling the comeback.

“He is someone who puts people before profits,” said Whelan. “Mr. D. gave us that secret to life, and now everything is paying forward.”

Hudson resident Nick Branco, who works at the Market Basket warehouse in Andover, knows the next couple of weeks will be tough.

“We’re looking at 12-hours days for at least two weeks,” said Branco, who wasn’t complaining.

Like the other 275 workers at the Market Basket distribution centers, Branco has been away from this job and without a paycheck for the past six weeks. He did receive some backup from the fund created to support warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers who were the first to leave their jobs.

“I was definitely nervous,” said Branco. “I just didn’t know when it would end.”

And the stream of ultimatums and statements that kept coming out of Market Basket headquarters didn’t help.

Branco checked in at the Andover warehouse Thursday morning and came away breathing huge sighs of relief.

“I just wanted to see what the place looked like,” he said. “And it was electric. It was a total turnaround from dark skies to complete sunshine.”

Branco said all the workers from temporary agencies had cleared out and the regular crews were back on the job.

He did have the chance to hear Arthur T. Demoulas thank everyone for their support and loyalty outside of the Tewksbury, Mass., plant Thursday morning.

“I was right next to him but I didn’t get a chance to talk to him personally,” said Branco. “He was being smothered by media.”

Londonderry store director Mark Lemieux, who has 37 years with Market Basket, wasn’t surprised by the media reaction.

“This began to have almost a cult following,” said Lemieux, who was continually being greeted by customers who shook his hand, congratulated him and told him he had been in their prayers.

“I hope this gives some of the one-percenters a wake-up call,” said Lemieux. “People are tired of seeing corporate greed.”

At the new Salem Market Basket, associate Lee Adams was in the parking lot collecting shopping carts, something he hasn’t had to do for much of the summer.

“I did have a little bit of doubt about all of this,” said Adams. “But people are already coming back in.”

For a lot of Market Basket customers, Thursday was like a homecoming. By mid-morning, store parking lots that have been empty weeks were filling up again.

“It has been awful, almost more than we can handle,” said Manchester resident Clare Young as she walked into the Londonderry store with a friend.

Like most loyal customers, Young was relieved to be back in a familiar store, among familiar faces.

“That man is a saint,” said Young referring to Arthur T. Demoulas. “He’s just a wonderful and compassionate man.”

Betty Sell of Auburn was also back behind a shopping cart in the Londonderry store Thursday morning.

“What an achievement this is for these people,” said Sell referring to the 25,000 Market Basket workers who stuck with their boss and their principles.

“What they did was as great as what our grandparents achieved back in their day,” she said.

Derry customer Robert Toupin was also impressed with how the conflict played out.

“I think the managers were shocked that everyone stood up,” he said. “I think they showed there’s a lot of power and strength when you’re standing together.”

Salem resident Jackie Blanchette was in the parking lot of the new Salem store greeting and congratulating associates as they showed up for their shifts.

Her husband, Phil, who is now retired but put 40 years into the grocery industry with another company, was loading grocery bags into their car.

“It will take a few days to get back to normal, but they’ll do it,” he said, noting that Market Basket workers succeeded on their own without the power of an organized labor union behind them.

For weeks, Market Basket associates like Brian Fiorenza, a meat cutter for the Nashua store, stood in the hot sun picketing their individual stores. The signs and protesters triggered a lot of noise from drivers who leaned on their horns as they passed by to show their support.

And the honking continued on Thursday as drivers spotted Market Basket delivery trucks travelling on Route 93.

Fiorenza and Meat Department Manager Dan Martell were back inside the store Thursday putting together an order for the warehouse, and they were both thrilled to be filling out order forms.

“We always had faith,” said Martell, who added that he and other workers appreciated everything customers had done to support them.

“This really was an effort of everyone,” he said.

And customers, who opted to shop at other supermarket chains are returning with renewed appreciation for Market Basket’s range of products and its pricing.

Irene Tarenzio, a regular shopper at store 13 in Nashua, said the past six weeks have been like a long case of supermarket withdrawal.

“I went to other stores, but I felt like a fish out of water,” she said.

Laura Chidester, another regular at store 13, was thrilled to be able to buy the things she likes that were not available at other supermarkets.

“It was horrible, we couldn’t get our favorite cheese,” laughed Chidester as she held up a block of Market Basket cheddar.

Although Tarenzio said she is happy for the Market Basket workers, she also hopes that the Demoulas family will be able to resolve their difference and make a new start.

“Maybe this will be a bridge for the cousins, and a learning experience for everyone,” she said. “Both sides of the family have kids, and those kids deserve to know one another, and where they come from.”