The jobs of 25,000 people in New England are at risk along with the livelihoods of many small businesses because of the drama surrounding the Market Basket supermarket chain.
The 71 Market Basket stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine have been without fresh food and shoppers, for the most part, for three weeks now because of a wildcat strike by workers who have chosen sides in a long-running dispute between two cousins over control of the family-owned business.
" The cousin I'm backing is the guy who built the business, and I helped him do that. So, I am going to help him get it back, " said one long-time Market Basket worker at a recent rally.
Workers loyal to former Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas walked off their jobs at stores and distribution warehouses after he was ousted by the board of directors. Arthur S. Demoulas reportedly took control of the board in June. The two cousins have a long history of litigation over business disputes.
A business estimated to be worth $3 billion seems to be headed down the tubes, according to Harlan Spotts, a professor in the College of Business at Western New England University.
" Here you've got a supermarket chain that was one of the highest rated in the country in terms of customer service and customer loyalty and all that is being thrown out the window over a family dispute."
Market Basket employees and customers have staged several large rallies with thousands of people demanding that Arthur T. be put back in charge of the company.
" Arthur T. Demoulas was definitely a worker's CEO," said Spotts. " There were benefits that workers were getting under him, bonuses, educational benefits. He cut prices across the board because he felt it was more important for the customers."
It is unclear how many customers are boycotting Market Basket in protest, or because they can’t find the items they need to buy. In any case, stores are devoid of shoppers who Spotts said might not return if the dispute is settled and the stores are re-stocked.
" The longer it goes on, it is not just the money they lose, but as people switch to other supermarkets a lot of shopping is habitual and if people get a new behavior it potentially affects the customer base."
The loss of business at the Market Basket stores is trickling down to workers who stayed on the job, but are now having their hours reduced. Customers may be paying higher prices to shop elsewhere, and suppliers to the supermarket chain are suffering.
Frank Ciesluk has 100 acres of sweet corn ready to be picked at his farm in Deerfield, but nowhere to sell it.
" I never expected this. You expect floods and downed corn from wind storms, but not losing your whole market."
Ciesluk said he has sold most of his corn to Market Basket for the last several years.
" It could put me out of business if it continues like this."
Ciesluk said he knows other farmers who are in the same boat. The Pioneer Valley Growers Association declined to comment.
The Market Basket board of directors is said to be weighing several offers to buy the company, including one from Arthur T.