The young labor union advocate is addressing the small crowd of immigrant neighbors in the carport like a fired-up schoolteacher.
"How many people shop at Bashas'?" he asks in Spanish, following up his question with a call for a boycott of the grocery chain, which includes the Hispanic-oriented Food City supermarkets. "We need to remember César Chávez. We're doing like how he taught us."
It's a comfortable fall evening and the six women and five men sitting on folding chairs and standing in the driveway are dressed casually, some having just gotten off work. Three men are wearing T-shirts with the logo of the same landscaping company. The house in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood near the Phoenix Children's Hospital is being remodeled. Its new carport has raw wood beams, and portable work lights illuminate the scene.
"How many of you will commit to stop shopping at Food City?"
About half of the people raise their hands.
"Who are we trying to help?"
"Ourselves. Immigrants. Shoppers," come the answers.
Katy Giglio, the twentysomething spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99, calls the event a "house party" for Hungry For Respect, an anti-Bashas' organization affiliated with the union.
The speaker says he's a student and a former Bashas' employee. He volunteers to talk at such house parties for free and doesn't want to give his name for publication.
"Just use 'Alex,'" he tells New Times. Giglio later confesses that Alex probably chose not to be identified because he's undocumented.
Giglio doesn't seem to find it odd that an illegal immigrant has been chosen as the spokesman for a union that negotiates wages and benefits for U.S. workers.
Alex leads the group in a discussion of Bashas' advertising habits. He notes that the non-union Bashas' chain put ads on the radio show of J.D. Hayworth, a former Republican congressman known for taking a hard line against illegal immigration.
Nestor Castro, who works for Hungry For Respect but is paid by the UFCW, translates: "He's talking about how Bashas' is giving lots of money to J.D. Hayworth. He's basically saying it's paying for racism."
Says one woman, "I've heard the owner of Food City is anti-immigrant."
Says another, "I think Food City supports [Maricopa County Sheriff] Joe Arpaio."
After the meeting, Alex makes it clear he's well aware that the head of Bashas', Eddie Basha Jr., is the grandson of entrepreneurial Lebanese immigrants who started the family company. He also knows Basha Jr. is one of the state's highest-profile Democrats and a supporter of many liberal causes.
But, for now, Alex is happy to let the conversation roll.
A man named Jesus tells the assembly that many of his friends are undocumented, and he feels the U.S. government did nothing for them despite the well-attended 2006 protest marches in Phoenix. But, he says, the union can benefit illegal immigrants by "speaking for the workers."
Alex appears to like what he hears.
"Maybe we can't fight the whole immigration stuff," Alex says. "But we can take care of stuff in our own neighborhood, starting with the products at our local stores."
Several boxes of pizza arrive, and Giglio hands out free slices on disposable plates.
The banter continues as people eat. A couple of the attendees claim to be current Food City employees, and they complain that the company treats its workers poorly. Another topic is the allegedly dirty conditions at Food City stores, and how such conditions symbolize the idea that parent company Bashas' doesn't respect Hispanics.
Alex asks people to spread the word about the boycott and ends the meeting by leading the group in what he called a "unity clap," historically used by farm worker unions. He passes out red, white, and green bumper stickers that encourage Spanish speakers to be "una mas" (one more) who won't shop at Food City.
In the fall, Hungry For Respect hosted many similar house parties in the Valley, sometimes two an evening. Giglio says the organization is made up of current and former Bashas' employees, other grocery store workers, community members, and union officials. Its members have been bad-mouthing Food City and Bashas' since the union formed the group last spring.
In fact, the group is indistinguishable from the UFCW itself. And the union is clearly trying to punish the chain for staying union-free. Bashas' has about 14,000 employees, and almost none pay union dues. (The exception: a few employees at stores bought by the Bashas' chain who have remained under UFCW representation.)
To the UFCW, the Bashas' chain represents a formidable challenge, but one with an immense potential reward. Slamming the company is part of an orchestrated plan to make it clear to top-tier executives at Bashas' that they'd better capitulate to the union.
When New Times asked to speak to Bashas' employees who are friendly to the union, Giglio and another UFCW official, Antonio Sanchez, brought several employees to a dinner at a Denny's restaurant. The employees with the harshest allegations had been working at the Bashas' food distribution center in Chandler for only a few months. They described the center as a "hellhole" — spoiled food everywhere, the place crawling with rats, maggots, and cats.
But two longtime Hispanic employees at the dinner meeting, who had worked at the center for years, said they had never witnessed such filth.
Tolentino Lazaro, a 64-year-old janitor, said he used to see cats in the building occasionally, but not anymore. The place can get dirty, he admitted, but he said he never saw rats.
Lazaro's said his problem was that he didn't like how Bashas' treated him after he was injured on the job. He said the company paid him less because he was on light duty for a few months.
When Lazaro was finished telling his story to New Times, Sanchez fished a $5 bill out of his wallet and started to hand it to Lazaro.
"No, no!" Giglio told Sanchez. "You're not supposed to pay him in front of the reporter."
Chagrined, Sanchez slipped the bill back into his billfold.
The UFCW's aggressive stance against Bashas' isn't an isolated effort. Across the United States, labor organizations that have suffered huge member losses for decades have launched robust campaigns to increase their ranks.
Right after World War II, about a third of U.S. workers claimed membership in a union. But union ranks have dwindled over the decades, with most members being lost to automation, changes in labor laws, jobs moving overseas, and more employment options.
The downward trend accelerated in the 1980s and '90s and continues today. Membership seemed to level off nationally in 2005 after falling to just 12.5 percent of the workplace. Then it dropped again in 2006, to 12 percent.
Unions are desperate to infuse themselves with new blood. Two campaigns in Arizona exemplify the struggle: the one against Bashas' and another against Milum Textile Service in downtown Phoenix, part of an effort by Unite Here! to unionize the state's laundry shops, hotels, and restaurants.
At the heart of both conflicts is the unions' goal of forcing management into labor agreements without giving employees the chance to vote in a secret-ballot election. Businesses that won't comply are made to suffer under what's called a "corporate campaign" — that is, a barrage of negative publicity. According to the targeted companies, union tactics have included obvious distortions, outright lies, and publicity stunts aimed at third-party patsies who buy services or products from them.
The unions figure if they can sully a business enough, its managers will let unions do what they want. The strategy is the principal tactic of a new coalition of unions designed to reverse the membership slide nationally. Three years ago, seven unions broke away from the venerable AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition: the UFCW, Unite Here!, United Farm Workers, Service Employees International, Teamsters, Laborers and Carpenters.
Union membership is relatively low in Arizona, but climbing. It grew from 6.1 percent of workers in 2005 to 7.6 percent in 2006. Unions see Arizona as fertile ground, and unionizing the Bashas' chain is one of Change to Win's top goals.
Bashas' and Milum have fought back, leading to labor complaints investigated by the National Labor Relations Board. The crux of the complaints is that the companies have unfairly discouraged workers from unionizing.
The union fight has been a public-relations nightmare for both companies, but also for the unions. The most serious accusations made by the unions — that Bashas' and Milum allow filthy and hazardous conditions and are disrespectful to employees and customers — remain unproven.
In light of the unions' stated goals, their allegations should be questioned, just as voters might question the promises of politicians, says Amy Hillman, chair of the Management Department at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business.
"These union campaigns can be very effective if there is an employer that needs to clean up his act," Hillman says. "But that 'if' is a big one, and if that isn't something that's readily apparent to the community, then the union does risk losing its credibility in these fights."
The UFCW's attack on Bashas' is "transparent," Hillman says. For one thing, the 75-year-old Arizona company has invested money on Indian reservations and in disenfranchised neighborhoods, she says, negating the idea that Bashas' is callous toward minorities.
Even the UFCW acknowledges that Bashas' pays its workers slightly more, on the average, than the unionized chains of Safeway or Fry's — and that's without taking union dues into account.
"Despite their best efforts to make this look like a corporate bad-guy situation, they lack the credibility to really make that argument," Hillman says of UFCW operatives.
The union stands to gain millions of dollars by organizing Bashas' employees, though it guarantees them nothing in return except "a voice, dignity, and respect," says UFCW Local 99 President Jim McLaughlin.
Local 99 dues now average between $27.65 and $47.88 a month, depending on a worker's position. Even with the lower dues, if Bashas' 14,000 employees unionized, the UFCW could collect $4.6 million a year. Local 99 took in about $7.5 million in dues last year, so roping in Bashas' would be a major coup.
One ardent supporter of unions, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, says the UFCW's "harsh" campaign may have gone too far.
"I think it's gotten too personal on Eddie and the Bashas' family," says Grijalva, who represents Tucson and parts of southern Arizona. "I understand the principle behind the efforts, but the tactics are debatable."
Officials at Bashas' and Milum Textile say they want secret-ballot elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board to decide whether their workers are unionized. If more than half of their employees vote to unionize, the companies would have to work with respective unions to set wages, benefits, and workplace rules for affiliated employees.
The unions have a different plan. They want to do an end-run around such elections, which long have been the usual route to organizing workers. They want the matter decided through what's known as the "card-check" system.
Though polls show that most Americans approve of unions, workers reject them in ballot elections most of the time. The reasons are many, but union officials believe a big one is that the NLRB became soft in the 1980s, allowing companies more latitude to propagandize against labor organizations.
Under the card-check system, union advocates gather workers' signatures on union-approval cards over time. If they eventually get more than half of a company's workers to sign up, the union can legally represent the firm's employees without an election — as long as the employer agrees to acknowledge the card-check system.
Neither Bashas' nor Milum will acknowledge the system.
Company officials claim card-check will tip the balance too much in favor of the unions. Under card-check, union officials know who hasn't signed up and can apply pressure. Just as unions claim companies intimidate workers before an election, critics of the card-check system claim unions intimidate workers into signing cards.
The labor-relations board agrees that elections are the best method, says Nancy Martinez, the NLRB's Phoenix spokeswoman.
But card-check could be on its way to becoming the law of the land.
As part of the new organizing push, Change to Win, the AFL-CIO and other unions lobbied nationally for a new law, the Employee Free Choice Act, that would make card-check the dominant method of unionizing.
Also known as the card-check bill, the act would force employers to recognize unions that obtained a majority of workers' signatures, eliminating the need for a ballot election. The bill passed the House last summer but failed to find enough votes in the Senate. There are predictions that it will resurface after the November election.
Tim Miller, a representative of the Web site www.unionfacts.com, says the card-check bill is "nothing but a power grab." The proposed law, he says, is the unions' payback for making large donations to Democrats who took control of the House and Senate in the 2006 elections.
All of Arizona's Democratic U.S. representatives voted for it.
Grijalva, whose 2006 campaign benefited greatly from union money, says support of the card-check bill isn't as much payback as it is "trying to rectify a very tough situation."
The barriers to a successful union election are steep, and going to a card-check system would make sure employees could "start the process" of unionization, he says.
The UFCW is pushing for card-check at Bashas' because it doesn't have another option: When it determined that Bashas' employees were poised to reject UFCW representation in an election scheduled for 2002, the union withdrew its petition for the vote.
"I think there was intimidation, and it [would have been] an unfair election," says Local 99 president McLaughlin. "My feeling is the card-check process is probably the most democratic you can possibly have. You're voting with your signature."
Now, the focus is on getting Bashas' to agree to the method. Or else.
A former UFCW leader, the late Joe Crump, heralded the new strategy in an essay he wrote in 1992 for the Labor Research Review.
"Organizing is war," he wrote. "[It] means putting enough pressure on employers — costing them enough time, energy, and money — to either eliminate them or get them to surrender to the union."
His "definition of successful organizing" is the UFCW pressure campaign that put a Michigan grocery chain, Family Foods, out of business in the late '80s.
Hundreds of cans of baby formula stand stacked in loose pyramids in a back office of the UFCW Local 99 headquarters at 2401 North Central Avenue. Katy Giglio, the union's spokeswoman, claims they're the 683 cans of expired formula bought at 55 Food City and Bashas' stores last summer by teams of "union workers, community members, and Bashas' employees."
The cans represent the single-most damning attack on Bashas' yet by the UFCW. Union officials claim the cans are evidence that Bashas' doesn't care about its employees, who are too overworked to deal with problems like expired food, or its customers.
Local 99 — which represents workers at most of the major grocery chains in Arizona: Fry's, Safeway, and Albertson's — has been trying to unionize Bashas' for years. The union ramped up efforts after Bashas' bought the original Food City store in 1994 and used the name brand to create a new line of stores for Hispanic immigrants. When Bashas' began buying formerly unionized grocery stores that were closing down and turning them into Food City stores, the UFCW lobbied the NLRB to allow it to represent all Food City workers. A judge ruled against the union.
Still stinging from the unsuccessful attempt to stage a labor-affirming election in 2002, the union began its corporate campaign against the 168-store chain in earnest four years later, seeking donations for the cause and distributing fliers picturing Eddie Basha Jr. that alleged the grocer was mistreating his workers.
Then came the neighborhood meetings, the allegations of disrespecting Hispanics and the supposed disparity in cleanliness between the Mexican-flavored Food City stores and Bashas' other markets. The union made its biggest splash in July with the claim that Bashas' routinely sold out-of-date baby formula. A slick brochure put out by the union following an announcement of the "discovery" of the old formula pictures a woman and infant and warns: "If infants do not receive the proper nutrition . . . they may develop potentially serious developmental problems."
In response to the corporate campaign, Bashas' slapped the UFCW and its most strident advocates with a defamation lawsuit last month. At a press conference inside a south Phoenix Food City store, Bashas' President Mike Proulx lashed out at the union in front of TV news cameras, his voice shaking with anger at times.
"Certainly, the negative stories, the lies, intimidation, insinuation, and innuendo that the customers are hearing are very, very damaging to our business," Proulx said. "The loss of our sales is measurable — it's measurable every day."
Proulx accused the union of using the unsavory tactics to convince Bashas' management that it had better abandon the ballot-election requirement and accept employee signatures as a route to unionization.
"This campaign is to put pressure on management to either make us give up our members' legal right to vote or to shut us down," he said. "And we're not going to let them close our business that has been in Arizona for 75 years."
In its lawsuit, Bashas' says the UFCW planted the baby food.
However, Phoenix attorney Mike Manning, hired by the chain, admits there's no proof of that. Although Bashas' says the union hasn't given it access to the cans, the UFCW held a press conference in July at which at least some of the cans were presented for inspection. Bashas' officials didn't show up to check out the containers.
In publicizing the formula buys, Giglio told the Arizona Capitol Times in July that they were only about protecting children, "not about union organizing."
Yet the Hungry For Respect group, which Giglio claims includes non-union members interested solely in helping consumers, made no attempt to inspect union-represented Fry's or Safeway grocery stores. In addition to the formula purchases occurring at the same time as the union campaign against Bashas', New Times discovered that the entire operation was led, staffed, and funded by the UFCW.
In a list provided by Giglio of people who helped with the formula buys, the majority were UFCW employees. Of the remaining Valley residents listed, either they or their organizations receive funding — in some cases, substantial funding — from the UFCW.
Another curiosity is that the UFCW pulled the bad-baby-formula plan from an old playbook.
In the early 1990s, the UFCW claimed the Food Lion grocery chain — then the target of a UFCW card-check campaign — was selling expired baby formula. Government workers who inspected the Food Lion chain in the southeastern United States for bad products simply couldn't believe the union's claim — since their own investigations showed Food Lion had fewer problems than its competitors.
As in the Food Lion case, government inspections in Arizona have had vastly different results from the union's, casting suspicion on the UFCW's claim.
Karen Sell, director of the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program, says random inspections of about 120 Arizona stores in 2006 and 2007 uncovered 11 cans of expired formula on the shelves of nine different establishments. But unlike Hungry For Respect, Sell's inspectors checked more than just one grocery chain. She wouldn't reveal where the formula was found, but she says the nine stores belonged to at least two separate grocery companies.
About the same time as the Bashas' formula buys, the California Healthy Communities Network held a press conference in San Francisco to announce it had found cartloads of expired products at Farmer Joe's stores. Newspapers and television news stations interviewed a private investigator named Dan Rush who had helped lead the sting on Farmer Joe's. It turns out that Rush is a former political director for the UFCW and the Network is a front group for the union.
Similarly, the people advocating on behalf of the UFCW Local 99 have a far cozier relationship with the union than has been reported in the daily press.
When Giglio was asked to name the unaffiliated "community members," as the union has called them, who helped with the baby-formula project, Giglio suggested that New Times meet with the Reverend Trina Zelle of Interfaith Worker Justice and Hector Yturralde and Alfredo Gutierrez of Somos America.
New Times determined that there was nothing unbiased about these three on the topic of Bashas' and the union. Each either benefits personally from union funding or represents an organization that does.
Trina Zelle, a Presbyterian minister in her late 40s, says she doesn't think it was unfair for her and other Hungry For Respect members to go into Bashas' stores exclusively to buy formula for the UFCW's campaign. She argues that the project was about keeping babies safe, not about helping the UFCW attack Bashas'.
The reason the group ignored union-represented chains like Fry's or Safeway in its effort to keep infants from harm, she contended, is that "you can only allocate your resources so much."
Pressed further on the issue, Zelle says "they" were receiving complaints about only Bashas' baby formula, so there was no need to check other stores. She wouldn't disclose who "they" were.
Zelle's group, Interfaith Worker Justice, a national organization, receives lots of money from unions, including the UFCW. Government reports show that it got at least $338,000 in union contributions in the past three years. By Zelle's own admission, union money makes up about 30 percent of her paycheck.
She denies that the union dollars influenced her decision to investigate the single grocery chain, Bashas', targeted by the union. But when it came to questions about the UFCW's involvement in the project, Zelle's answers descended into a series of memory lapses. Zelle says she can't recall when she first heard of the idea to buy baby formula, when or who invited her to do it, who instructed her in how to make the buys, or where the preparatory meeting took place.
Asked repeatedly who led the project, Zelle says, "I'm trying to figure out exactly what you're asking. I know I'm being frustrating."
Zelle says she spent the entire day of the formula purchases with a teammate. But she says she can't remember his name, whether he was connected to the union or where the man got the money to pay for the formula.
Zelle was only slightly more specific during the July 11 press conference about the expired formula, in which she acted as one of the project's front people. The man she worked with was a "community member" and she had "no idea" whether he was reimbursed for the buys, she told the news media at the time.
The minister repeatedly tells New Times that she has all the answers about the people she worked with on the project written down in a notebook at home. New Times asks to see the book.
"I'm not interested in proving to you I have notes," Zelle responds.
Giglio eventually tells New Times that Zelle's partner was indeed a union worker, and that the UFCW paid for all of the formula.
Like Zell's Interfaith Worker Justice, Hector Yturralde's Somos America also receives union funding, Giglio says, though she refused to divulge how much. Somos America is, in fact, a coalition of groups that includes the UFCW, and the union allows Somos to use its facilities and other resources.
Yturralde's activist partner in Somos, former state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez — who has been at the forefront of union allegations that Bashas' is anti-Hispanic — has an even closer financial relationship with the UFCW. His consulting firm contracts with the union.
One of the union's key claims is that the chain's Food City stores have far more health violations than its Bashas' markets. After the union presented a report on the subject, titled "Is There a Double Standard?," to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in November, Gutierrez aired the findings two weeks later on his Spanish-language radio show on Radio Campesina 88.3 FM.
"There were 51 percent more major violations at Food City in 2005 than in Bashas'. . . and Food City is focused on our community, right?" Gutierrez said on the show. "We are talking about feathers, birds, mice; dead mice, live mice, and flies" at the Food City stores.
But the numbers are misleading, especially if other grocery store chains are considered — which the union didn't do. As the Bashas' lawsuit against the union points out, many Food City stores dinged by inspectors actually do better, violation-wise, than unionized competitors in the same Hispanic neighborhoods.
Inspection data on grocery stores by the county can be found on its Web site, www.maricopa.gov/envsvc, after clicking, oddly, on "restaurant ratings." The numbers paint a much more complicated picture concerning grocery store violations than the union wants the public to believe.
Illuminating are the most recent cleanliness awards handed out by the county, which reviews stores about every three months. If an inspector finds everything in order, the store and its various departments — such as the meat market, bakery and fast-food eatery — get a gold award. Major violations found usually merit a silver award or no award.
Using the award system, New Times found that Food City stores, indeed, get fewer gold ratings and more major violations than those carrying the Bashas' name.
But Safeway stores, as a whole, rated about the same as Food City markets. Using Gutierrez's logic, it could be argued that if Bashas' disrespects Hispanics, Safeway — and by extension the UFCW, which represents Safeway workers — are dissing everyone they serve.
Combine the Food City and Bashas' stores and you get percentages similar to the whole Fry's chain. In other words, overall, Fry's has about the same number of violations per store as Bashas'.
Certain poorly performing Fry's stores bring down the average — and many of those are in Hispanic neighborhoods. The Valley's three Ranch Market stores, often held up by critics of Food City as a cleaner alternative for Hispanic shoppers, fare no better on violations than some of the worst Food City violators.
It's not that Gutierrez is incorrect about certain problems at Food City stores. He just conveniently fails to mention the same conditions that crop up at unionized chains.
Another piece of evidence that Bashas' disrespects Hispanics, according to Gutierrez and union advocates, is that the chain advertises on 550 AM (KFYI) during J.D. Hayworth's show.
But spokeswomen from Safeway and Kroger, which owns Fry's, confirmed that their chains advertise plenty on two AM radio stations known for their conservative commentary, KTAR and KFYI. Sure, Hayworth talks tough about illegal immigrants, but not more so than most of the radio personalities on either station.
Despite the weak link between advertising and bigotry, Gutierrez wrote in an e-mail to Univision in late October that the Spanish-language TV network should stop dealing with Food City "or any other company that advocates our deportation and the stripping of our children's constitutional rights."
He apparently was referring to the harsh rhetoric espoused by Hayworth or other right-wing commentators concerning a proposal to take citizenship away from the children of illegal immigrants. But no Bashas' or Food City official has ever been quoted publicly saying anything like that.
In fact, Gutierrez tells New Times he has no idea whether other grocery chains advertise on J.D. Hayworth's show, or on other shows with equally conservative opinions. Nor does he care.
"It's very possible that I bought an auto part from a store that advertises there," Gutierrez says. "I'm an advocate. I don't pretend to be an objective voice."
But Gutierrez and other UFCW advocates want the public to think they're objective, to a certain extent. They want people to believe it's credible that Bashas' is somehow worse than other grocery chains, that the assertion is based on reasonably fair research, and that a union would make things better.
In Gutierrez's case, however, he's more than just biased — he's getting paid big bucks by the UFCW, a fact he admits readily to New Times. How much is he getting?
"I don't want to answer that because I'm getting sued," he says, referring to his status as a defendant, along with Trina Zelle and Hector Yturralde, in Bashas' defamation claim against the union.
But even though Gutierrez won't fess up, it's right there in the suit that the UFCW pays his consulting firm, Tequida and Gutierrez, a whopping $20,000 a month.
Questioned about the ethics of such a relationship with the union, Gutierrez says he sees no problem with getting paid by the UFCW and then blasting its target, Bashas', on his radio program.
The Milum Textile building at Sixth Avenue and Van Buren hasn't changed much since it was built in 1935. Neither has the work done there, says owner Craig Milum: Washables get dumped in 400-pound capacity machines, dried and then moved to steamroller-like pressers.
The Milum building looks old inside, and not in any retro way. The worst of the soiled stuff handled there includes hospital sheets and pillowcases smeared with bodily fluids and sometimes hiding bloody needles. Anyone assigned to work directly with the washables has to be vaccinated against hepatitis B within 10 days. But following the start-up of a union campaign targeting Milum Textile in 2006, a visit by state inspectors revealed that some workers might not have been getting the shots right away.
The inspection also turned up other violations, like a dirty conveyor for soiled materials, and no routine cleaning schedule for the machine. Milum was fined $2,500. The company was found guilty of a few similar violations in 2002.
To Unite Here!, which began organizing the state's laundry plants in earnest in 2006, the violations at Milum were pure gold. It would soon become part of Unite Here!'s campaign to force Craig Milum to accept a card-check system aimed at unionizing his plant.
The first step was to find the perfect Milum customer. Soon, the union discovered a restaurant chain that certainly wouldn't want its customers to find out it was employing a firm that had paid fines for unsanitary conditions.
The business was Fox Restaurant Concepts, which operates Olive & Ivy restaurant on East Camelback Road.
Brian Callaci, a regional Unite Here! representative based in Phoenix, created fliers about the union's campaign to organize Milum employees. The focus was on the seemingly unrelated Olive & Ivy. The fliers featured cartoon foxes on the front and back. They were titled: "Where is Sam Fox hiding?" (Fox owns Fox Restaurant Concepts.) Inside the fliers were some "facts about Milum" — including that Milum Textile washes the tablecloths and napkins used by Fox Restaurant Concepts (including four other restaurants in the Phoenix area), that the state found Milum in "serious violation of multiple blood-borne pathogens standards," and that "serious" means a possibility of death or injury.
The insinuation was that Milum washed hospital and restaurant linens together. The union never presented evidence of that, and even if the materials had been washed together (Milum says they weren't), they would have been safe and sterilized when done, a state inspector later determined.
The union paid people to stand on the sidewalk near Olive & Ivy handing out the leaflets. Sam Fox told New Times that the union's claims were outrageous, but they must have had an effect on him. He started sending his tablecloths and napkins to another firm recently.
For Unite Here!, that's evidence its campaign is working. The union had used disinformation to separate Milum Textile from one of its biggest clients.
Unite Here! also targeted another Milum client, Oaxaca Restaurants, which has two locations in Phoenix. To attempt to force Oaxaca to choose another laundry service, the union handed out a flier to customers reprinting the news of the restaurant's recent health-code violation, which included beans and chicken that weren't cooked well enough.
Union officials went after Oaxaca "just because [Craig Milum] wouldn't do what they wanted him to — it's just dirty politics," maintains Mia Verdugo, whose family owns Oaxaca. Unlike Fox, the owners of Oaxaca are sticking with Milum.
As in the case of Bashas', the question in the fight to organize Milum workers isn't so much about whether the company is worse than all of its competitors; it's about whether a business owner can reject union pressure and continue to operate in peace.
To Unite Here! local organizer Callaci, the answer is a resounding no. The union is on a roll. It has managed to capture half of the state's laundry workers in two years.
Unite Here! is an amalgamation, formed in 2004, of the former UNITE textile workers union (of "Look For the Union Label" fame) and HERE, the union for restaurant and hotel workers. It's one of the only unions that saw increases in members in the past two years. But it has paid for its aggressiveness: Last year, the union was slapped with a $17.2 million penalty after a court found it libeled the Sutter Health hospital chain in California.
Callaci makes no apologies for the leaflets distributed outside Oaxaca and Olive & Ivy, saying there was no libel in them. Incredibly, he denies that the Fox flier was misleading, claiming that restaurant customers shouldn't have drawn a connection between tablecloths and blood-borne illness.
Milum Textile is far from perfect. But that could probably be said of most laundry shops. A review of state OSHA records showed Milum drew more violation notices than all of his competitors in the last two years. Then again, he received the most scrutiny and complaints because of the union campaign.
Craig Milum inherited the business from his father, who taught his son how to stave off unions after a few successful battles of his own. He admits he's made a few changes because of Unite Here!'s campaign, but he doesn't want the union coming in and telling him how to run his company. He says his wages are competitive and, in some cases, his workers make more than their unionized counterparts.
Milum is angry at the union, which may have played right into its hands. Unite Here! claims Milum disciplined employees for wearing union buttons and for conducting other union activity during work hours.
Milum says he wants his workers to vote up or down on the union in a secret-ballot election.
As with Bashas', the campaign at Milum is focused on avoiding an election and forcing the company to accept unionization based on signatures solicited by the union. Callaci says he's just trying to make life better for Milum employees like Evangelina Guzman, a single mother of five who claims Milum fired her for supporting the union.
At a meeting with New Times, Guzman and two current Milum workers complain that the company often did not allow workers to reach full-time status, telling them to stop work after about 36 hours so they wouldn't qualify for health benefits.
But it turned out the union wasn't treating Guzman much better.
Guzman, who says she's a legal immigrant from Mexico, began working for the union a few months ago. The union pay is good, she says, but she gets to work only about 36 hours a week.
She adds that she gets no health benefits — all her kids are on the state's indigent healthcare plan, AHCCCS, just as when she was at Milum.
Asked about the blatant double standard, Callaci admits it might seem hypocritical.
A few weeks later, Callaci phones New Times to say, in a sheepish voice, the union is now covering Guzman and her kids under its healthcare plan.