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

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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.

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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.