A FEW DAYS AFTER HE testified before the King County Council about morale and management problems in his workplace, Ken Grubbs' superiors took away his automobile allowance.

A code inspector for the county's Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES), Grubbs relied on his auto allowance -- a $270 per month stipend -- to help pay for the car he uses for county business.

Grubbs responded to the affront by filing a grievance through his union. The grievance process, which forced his bosses at DDES to turn over Grubbs' personal file, uncovered even more suspect behavior by the county.

Grubbs' file noted that a DDES manager was directly responsible for an insurance rate hike the company levied against Grubbs a year and a half earlier. Grubbs had always wondered why his insurance company had suddenly decided to raise his rates by as much as $200 a year.

"I've been a shop steward for almost 10 years," he says. "I've been involved in a lot of labor-management conflicts. I think it'd be safe to say I've been a thorn in their side at various times."

According to his union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 17, Grubbs' case isn't isolated. Local 17 union organizer Ray Goforth alleges that DDES has been systematically intimidating the most active members of Local 17. Several grievances -- Grubbs' among them -- are going to be heard by the state's Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) at the end of this month.

If PERC rules in favor of Local 17 on all counts, King County will basically be found guilty of union-busting -- in other words, for the past two years, your taxpaying dollars will have gone to cracking down on workers' rights.

The most recent example was a DDES attempt to force a gag order on the union for distributing a "libelous" e-mail. The e-mail, distributed by Goforth, asked union activists from as far away as Australia to protest DDES' actions against Local 17 members. (The gag order was eventually withdrawn.)

Technically, the county points out, it did not file a "gag order." It's a motion for a protective order. But the effect is the same: King County tried to shut Local 17 up. "The timing of this widely disseminated e-mail," the memo reads, "appears calculated to intimidate, harass, or otherwise interfere with the PERC hearing scheduled a few weeks from now."

Another incident Local 17 is complaining about involves time off for employees with a physical disability. Under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, an employer can request medical certification forms from an employee who needs time off. The act, however, gives employees at least 15 days to get a doctor's note. Goforth says union shop stewards and vocal union members who have tried to get time off have only been given seven or eight days to respond.

The county won't discuss its fight with Local 17. Officially, it's waiting until after the state-mediated hearing before it will say anything publicly. County prosecutor Dan Donohoe, however, is quick to point out that the gag-order motion was withdrawn. "After further analysis, it was decided this wouldn't be a good way to prevent some of the harassing e-mail," he says mysteriously. And Paula Adams, spokeswoman for DDES, denied that the county did anything wrong when it called Grubbs' private insurance company. "I don't know about this particular case," she says, "[but] we don't get into personal stuff [with private insurers]." Adams says the county only calls an employee's insurer if the employee is using a private car for official business. Adams insists that DDES hasn't been trying to bust Local 17.

Goforth, however, has a different impression. "DDES is trying to screw us over," he says. "We think Ron Sims is a pretty fair guy, but we don't think he knows what's going on here." Goforth estimates that 95 percent of the county-related complaints filed by Local 17 union members come from DDES employees.