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

Page 2 of 8

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.