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In its war for new members, a labor union is using dirty tricks to turn Hispanics against Bashas'

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.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.