By Matt Murphy and Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- With executives moving to eliminate hours for part-time employees as the ownership struggle over the Market Basket chain continues between workers and cousins from the Demoulas family, Attorney General Martha Coakley opened a dedicated hotline on Thursday for Market Basket employees.
Coakley said her office has seen a "significant uptick" in calls over the past 24 hours, with more than 100 calls pouring in from employees interested in their rights.
Coakley and New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster wrote to Market Basket leadership last week reminding them of laws pertaining to worker terminations.
"Market Basket is a major employer in Massachusetts, and we remain hopeful that the parties will come together to reach a positive resolution and restore the vibrancy of the business," Coakley said in a statement Thursday. "With the rapidly evolving circumstances, we have established this hotline to answer questions directly from workers and make sure their rights are being protected."
At an unrelated event in Boston Thursday morning, Coakley told reporters, "We've made the commitment to say we're going to monitor this very closely including with the attorney general in New Hampshire, because of so many stores up there. And although our laws are a little different, we both feel that the workers need to be treated fairly, they need to know what their rights are if they're terminated.
Coakley's office said any fired workers are entitled to receive all wages due on their final day of employment, including hourly wages, tips, earned vacation and holiday pay. Workers can call the hotline at (617) 963-2400.
Hundreds of workers continue to refuse to show up to work until Arthur T. Demoulas is reinstated as president. During the worker action, shelves in the supermarket's stores have gone empty with deliveries of perishable products occurring sporadically, if at all. The company is weighing offers to purchase a majority stake in the chain, including one from ousted CEO Arthur T., who was fired after his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas secured a majority of support on the board of directors.
Asked Wednesday about getting involved in the labor dispute given the likelihood of job cuts, Gov. Deval Patrick said, "Getting involved I think would mean choosing a CEO of a private company and I don't think that's the business of the governor. But I do want peace at Market Basket and in the economy generally. It's a terrible hardship for the people who work there. It's a terrible hardship for the people that the company serves."
Asked about potential workforce reductions at Market Basket, Patrick said, "I certainly don't want to see that happen . . . What we're dealing with here and we all know is a dispute over who the boss should be at Market Basket. That's a serious dispute. It has a lot of impact on a lot of people, employees and shoppers alike, and I hope that the board sorts that out."
Patrick continued, "The central issue is the employees want a different boss than they have. I get that. And they have taken extraordinary actions around that. But I don't think with due respect to how serious that is that we want governors making decisions about who the CEO of private companies ought to be."
Patrick did not respond when asked if he supported the boycott of the supermarket.
Sen. Barry Finegold, who is campaigning for state treasurer, was spreading the word Thursday to supporters about how he was "standing with and protecting working men and women who are devoted to a cause they firmly believe in." In an email, he said he hoped for a "reasonable and speedy resolution."
"On July 18, approximately 2,000 employees stood up to defend their company and its beloved CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. As I watched the employees of Market Basket put their livelihoods on the line and risk being fired for standing up for what they believe is right, I knew I couldn't stay on the sidelines," Finegold wrote. "The following Saturday afternoon I called a few elected officials to ask if they would stand with me and boycott Market Basket. Within a few hours, 17 legislators were on board. Now, three weeks later, 160 elected officials from Massachusetts and New Hampshire are boycotting Market Basket to support the tens of thousands of employees who are trying to preserve the company so many of us have grown to depend on."
At a campaign stop in Boston Thursday morning, Treasurer Steven Grossman told reporters he was "desperately concerned" about Market Basket workers.
"If I was governor, I would offer myself in any way I could. It's a private company, let's understand that, but governors sometimes get involved even in private company situations to try to resolve them, to try to be a mediator. So you can't force yourself in the front door to help people come to a solution, but you at least need to offer," Grossman said.
Coakley said the labor dispute offered an opportunity to stand up for workers' rights.
"We're still hopeful that there can be a resolution and I think everybody's been inspired by these workers, who say 'Look, we know we don't have much of a safety net but we're standing up on principle, we've been treated fairly, we don't want to be treated badly.'" she said. "We're going to make sure whatever we can do in the attorney general's office, that we support those workers and their rights."
Gintautas Dumcius and Mike Deehan contributed reporting.