PORTSMOUTH — The rapidly escalating drama surrounding the Market Basket supermarket chain very likely is a future topic of study unfolding before the public’s eyes, a mass communication professor at Boston University says.
“You bet it is,” Professor John Carroll said Tuesday. “This is going to be a major case study for decades to come. It is a real textbook case of one side telling its story and establishing a narrative, really vividly, while the other side sits by and watches it happen.”
Thousands of Market Basket managers, employees, customers and supporters rallied Monday at the company’s corporate headquarters in Tewksbury, Mass., and at individual stores Tuesday and Wednesday, calling for the reinstatement of ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.
Managers and employees at many of the company’s 71 stores in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts have worked together over the past week to collect signatures, wave signs and ask customers to send emails in support of Demoulas. Walkouts by warehouse staff and delivery truck drivers have left Market Basket shelves, produce bins and dairy coolers empty across the region.
The widely beloved CEO — praised by many for treating employees like family members — was fired last month by a board of directors led by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, after decades of family infighting. The new board and new co-CEOs, Felicia Thornton and James Gooch, have been largely silent as the rallies have grown and the shelves have emptied.
Arthur T.’s picture has hung on many Market Basket windows and doors since last week. Carroll said the nature of the support has been unique.
“You may never again see management and rank-and-file employees working in concert for a particular outcome,” said Carroll, who has taught at BU for nine years and is a former executive producer of news programs at WGBH-TV in Boston. “The idea of the two of them joining forces to protest anything — I don’t know anybody who can tell me another example of that.
“The store managers at Walmart are not going to go out and rally for health benefits with the workers at Walmart,” Carroll continued.
Jerry Paquette, assistant manager of Market Basket’s store on Woodbury Avenue in Portsmouth, said Tuesday that he and his staff had collected at least 500 petition signatures since Monday.
“We’re not surprised by how fast word is getting around — not by a long shot,” Paquette said. “The amount of customers we have, and the loyal customer base — a lot of people are very concerned with what’s going on.”
Paquette said social media such as Facebook and websites such as wearemarketbasket.com had been “helping tremendously” to rally support.
Carroll said the message has resonated with the public.
“They have a largely sympathetic mainstream media that is broadcasting and amplifying their side of the dispute, and they have a very smart use of social media to sort of mobilize and energize both the workers and the faithful customers,” he said. “They’ve got a lot going for them, and they’ve got a good, compelling story.”
Market Basket’s new management published an open letter as a full-page ad in Saturday’s Boston Globe. The letter apologized to customers for the turmoil and said some employees had “lost sight of their top priority — taking care of you.”
Carroll called the ad “a complete dodge” and said it didn’t truly address the situation with Arthur T.
“I think the board and the new co-CEOS have really sort of abdicated their responsibility here, to go out and defend themselves and their actions,” Carroll said. “There is no counter-narrative to the story that the workers have presented. There is nothing for people to sort of weigh.”
People have been able to weigh the new management’s firing of at least eight longtime executives Sunday. Some of the executives, including a nephew of Arthur T., were notified of their dismissal by courier message.
“I can’t remember something as ham-handed as that — they totally miscalculated the effect of that on the workers and the effect of that on public opinion,” Carroll said.
“If they thought that that was going to frighten those workers back into the stores… that was a massive miscalculation, because all it did was galvanize them.”
Carroll noted that the one-sided nature of Market Basket news has kept potentially valuable details from the public.
“The general public doesn’t know Arthur T. from Arthur S. — they don’t know the particulars of this thing,” he said. “They just know what’s in front of them.”
That’s enough for Greenland resident Brooke Conlin, who held signs Monday in front of the Market Basket on Route 1 in Portsmouth.
“I trust in the fact that the employees are risking everything,” Conlin said of supporting Arthur T. despite hearing only limited information. “I trust that they know what’s going on.”
Londonderry resident Steve Paulenka, one of the eight employees fired over the weekend, told workers at Monday’s rally to “shut it down,” referring to Market Basket stores. Carroll said language such as that, including calls to bring corporate management “to its knees,” risked crossing a fine line between a quest for justice and a quest for vengeance.
“That could lose (workers) some of the public sympathy,” he said.
Carroll said one course of action for the new management could be to “reinstate the workers they fired and just come out and say, ’We were wrong,’ and then try to reach some accommodation with Arthur T., so it seems that they’ve made some kind of concession.”
He added that, “They’re not going to reinstall him to where he was before, but it seems to me there might be some middle ground they could find.”
The new CEOs also need a message and a messenger, he said.
“They need to put a human face on their side of the story,” Carroll said. “They need somebody out there who will appear authentic and credible to the public.”
He said as the Market Basket situation continues to unfold with “a whole lot of moving parts,” it could create very teachable lessons in damage control, image presentation, labor relations and more.
“This thing is a treasure trove for Harvard Business School — everybody except me is going to write a book about this,” Carroll said.