SINCERITY. It’s the one thing that weirds me out as a newsman.
That’s because we in the news business see so much insincerity — the politician who promises to fight for us, the defense lawyer who insists on his client’s innocence, the silver-tongued PR type who whitewashes his company’s nefarious actions.
So I felt a little weird this week when I walked the Elm Street sidewalk in front of Market Basket and spoke to workers.
Sincerity thrives here. It’s as loud as the car horns that toot their support for sign-toting workers.
It’s melded into the stories of people like Jake Lutsko, a 24-year-old meat cutter who might not even be alive if not for Market Basket. His mother and father met while working at Market Basket.
“What we had here with Artie T. running the place was truly family,” Lutsko said. “We’re not asking anything for ourselves, just (return) Artie T. and everyone else who was unjustly fired.”
There, in a nutshell, is why motorists honk their horns and why loyal Market Basket customers have honored a boycott. What could be more sincere than a person making $10 or $20 an hour risking his job so a millionaire can get his job back?
Also on the sidewalk was Maria Deltrecco, a retail clerk who stocks shelves. She has been with Market Basket for 10 years, starting as a part timer shortly after she turned 14.
She’s read notices from the new CEOs, telling everyone to be at work or face the consequences. And she’s seen the cars, occupied by what the workers call goons, drive by and videotape the crowd.
What if she’s fired?
“I’m not worried, I’m not scared because once Artie does come back, we’ll get our jobs back,” said Deltrecco, a mother of two. Deltrecco, who went full time six years ago, said she earns $12.50 an hour. She gets two weeks paid vacation and a flexibility that basically lets her set her work schedule around day care.
Lutsko, a meat cutter, earns $19 an hour. He said his salary almost doubled when he left Stop & Shop for Market Basket. The Hudson resident said he is not worried about losing his job.
“The way I look at it, we already lost the best part of our jobs when they fired Artie T,” he said.
Not only is the protest sincere, it’s otherworldly at times. Most are vague about whether they are on the clock, and it’s obvious that Market Basket has been paying people to stand outside and urge customers to shop elsewhere.
After about a half-hour, a co-worker walked up to them and told them the manager wanted them back on the job. Most walked across the parking lot, back to so-called work.
They returned to a store bereft of green produce. An empty meat cooler sat under the sign “Best selection of well-trimmed meats.” Shelves had dry goods and milk, but bakery stocks were depleted.
“That’s right, no hot bread. Bring back ATD,” read a hand-lettered sign. The emptiness amplified the background music — the pop 1970’s song “Amie” — to an annoying volume.
A customer or two moved through one of the three registers that were open. Clerks passed out free bread that was going out of date.
“We’re going crazy,” said Peter Louis, whose normal job involves preparing sandwiches, pizzas and other ready-to-go food in the Market Kitchen. He said his last shipment arrived July 11, and he has nothing to cook.
“We’re cleaning. We’re doing customer service, helping customers find stuff if we have it,” he said.
Louis, who is 40 and lives in Manchester, said he makes more than the $12.15 an hour he was making when he left Shaw’s Supermarkets for Market Basket nearly two years ago.
Yet, that is not the only compensation. He’s received six bonuses. The lowest was $80 when he worked part time. The highest, a customer service bonus that Artie T. approved shortly before his termination, was $1,000.
It makes you wonder if the lovable Artie T. doesn’t have a strategic side to him. If he knew a fight was coming, what better way to generate sympathy than by giving workers a generous bonus and customers a well-promoted 4 percent discount?
Or am I just looking for insincerity, anywhere?
The Market Basket wage seems to stack up well against others, at least for long-timers. Here’s a rundown of average hourly Manchester wages for 2013 — the latest figures available from the state Department of Employment Security.
• Stock clerk. Deltrecco’s $12.50 compares to a median hourly wage of $11.58.
• Meat cutter. Lutsko’s $19 compares to $15.69.
• Food prep. Louis’ “more than $12.15” compares to $13.24.
• Cashier. Two-year employee Jayson Craig said he makes $9. That compares to an average of $9.42.
Louis and Craig, who worked at other supermarkets before Market Basket, predicted their pay will eventually exceed that of their previous employer. And they said the bonuses, which come four times a year, are an extra.
“Basically, it comes down to Market Basket takes care of their employees,” Louis said. “We work our butts off, but we get compensated for it.”
Out on the sidewalk, Market Basket workers waved signs and discussed the latest news: Boston media speculate that the company is losing $10 million a day; “scabs” are working at the warehouse; the board blames Arthur T. for the upheaval.
They were paid last week, and today is payday. Even though their tasks have been scarce, they said they expect to get a paycheck. And then it’s likely they will be out on the street, waving signs and urging a boycott until their beloved CEO returns.
“I’m willing to say we have the support of the country right now,” Louis said. “Their eyes are on us.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.