By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Owners of Market Basket are nearing an "understanding" for the sale of the company, Gov. Deval Patrick said Wednesday, adding he thinks employees boycotting the grocery chain should go back to work to stabilize the company.

"I think everybody is interested in a sale," said Patrick.

Patrick said he spoke with Arthur T. Demoulas, the ousted chief executive, and the chairman of the board, Keith Cowan.

"My understanding is they either have an understanding or are very close to price, I think you all know this, to an agreement on price," Patrick told reporters after signing an environmental bond bill Wednesday afternoon. "They are trying to work out some of the other terms."

Patrick said there were still sticking points, but declined to elaborate on the conversations he had.

"There are two or three sides to every story, and there are two or three sides to this one as well," he said. "I think you would think that after price there is not a whole lot that has to be worked out. But I think there is some financing terms, for example."

The governor said the tone of the discussions has been very civil and respectful.

"Both the chair, who is an independent member of the board, and Mr. Demoulas, I spoke to, independently expressed their concern about what's happening to the company and the people who work for it. And their hope that the company can be stabilized," Patrick said.


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Patrick has been reluctant to get involved in the dispute of a private company, but offered to mediate last Friday after sending a letter to the board. The board contacted him after he sent the letter, he said.

Asked if he would talk to them again, Patrick "We'll see."

"Without getting into detail we've all agreed we're not going to get into yet, there's some things I've asked them to do, and to think about. And some ways I have asked them to consider whether in fact I can help," Patrick said.

Patrick said he is concerned about the workers, and added, "They have it entirely within their power to stabilize the company by going back to work. And I hope they can see a way to do that while the buyer and seller work out the final terms of a transaction."

A few weeks after former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas was voted out by the board of directors, employees loyal to him staged protests, demanding Arthur T. be reinstated. There is a longstanding feud between Arthur T. and his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas, who now controls the company. Warehouse drivers refused to make deliveries, and some store managers refused deliveries, leaving shelves largely empty. Customers have steered clear of the chain's 75 stores - located mainly in northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

"Usually companies are able to buy and sell each other without workers walking off the job and saying they are not going to work unless they get the boss of their choice. Frankly, I think everybody involved is disappointed it has come to this," Patrick said.

He added, "Now having said that, I think it's important for the workers to understand, for the associates to understand, that they can go right back to work, and they would do a service to the people served by Market Basket, all the customers and the communities in which the shops operate by doing so."

In a statement released late Wednesday, the independent members of the board said, "We have now gone five days since we offered a solution that would return everyone back to work to support the Company including the former management team. To date, we still have not received a response.

"Today, we applaud Governor Patrick's statement encouraging all Associates to return to work as soon as possible. We, as Independent Board members, cannot force any shareholders to buy or to sell, nor can we control the timing of their decisions. All we seek is to get our Associates back to work earning a steady income so our customers can go back to shopping. In return, we can't offer a resolution to the deal negotiations, but have and will continue to offer a way to return to normal while negotiations continue. Playing with fire that will hurt us all - Associates, shoppers, communities - and is a no-win situation and we all need it to end. 

The statement continued: "It's well past the time when anyone can frame the crisis as 'us vs. them,' or a 'family feud.' There are too many families being impacted by this. Rather, for good or ill, many are being asked to sacrifice their pay, their jobs, their ability to shop at affordable prices in their own neighborhoods, against the hope that it will help one side achieve a preferred business deal rather than another. No one should ever hold the 25,000 associates, 2 million shoppers and our local economies as leverage in a business negotiation. It is time to get everyone back to work. It's been five days since we last proposed a solution that would work toward getting everyone back and bring the crisis to an end. That's five days too long and now time is running out."