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

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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 The union made its biggest splash in July with the claim that Bashas' routinely sold out-of-date baby formula.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.

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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.