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

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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.

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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.