Don't Look for the Union Label

For two years Goya Foods has waged a war to prevent its workers from unionizing. Now things are starting to get really ugly.

Alberto Turienzo raps his fist on the hardback cover of El Padrino, a Spanish translation of The Godfather, that venerable Mario Puzo novel about the Italian Mafia. "This book," explains Turienzo in a husky voice, pausing dramatically, "has taught me a lot about what has been going on in my life. This is a book about loyalty, about family, about honesty. And also about deception and betrayal. Know how many times I've read this book? Twelve times."

For close to two years, Turienzo has been involved in a different sort of turf war and family intrigue, lacking the wholesale violence and crime of the novel. His is a battle of minds and nerves. It began as a typical labor-union campaign at Turienzo's long-time job site, the Goya Foods of Florida plant in Miami, and has grown into an ugly, all-out grudge match fueled by legal maneuvering, public posturing, and dark accounts of intimidation, retaliation, and deals that cannot be refused. Even the efforts of local, state, and national politicians have failed to resolve any part of the dispute, which now is being played out before a judge in downtown Miami.

Turienzo was one of the first casualties in the war between Goya and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, commonly referred to as UNITE. When he and two co-workers lost their jobs last summer, their misfortune became the union's strongest rallying point. But even a public outcry hasn't been enough to deter Goya from its relentless drive to rout the union, despite two 1998 elections giving UNITE the right to represent about 120 workers.

Steve Satterwhite
Alberto Turienzo calls the union fight at Goya a bloodbath
Steve Satterwhite
Alberto Turienzo calls the union fight at Goya a bloodbath

Negotiations over a labor contract broke off eight months ago and this past December the company withdrew recognition of the union altogether. Meanwhile the three fired workers and their families have been playing a precarious financial waiting game. They'll probably go weeks or months longer before learning if a plodding legal process will restore their jobs and part of their lost wages. The other Goya employees are in limbo, too. They're being sweet-talked and regaled with easy loans, cheap cars, raises, and better benefits; some say it's all a pretty way of buying their loyalty. Still others say fear and distrust keep them quiet and cowed. Yet many employees are content with their jobs, proud to be part of "the big Goya family," and fed up with two years of feuding.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent agency charged with administering labor laws, believes much of Goya's behavior during the union campaign has been illegal and has charged the company with 40 violations of the National Labor Relations Act. A hearing on the charges (which include the firings) has entered its third week before an administrative law judge at the downtown Miami office of the NLRB. A ruling isn't expected for several weeks, but a U.S. district judge may decide earlier on the matter of the firings and the breakoff of contract talks. Last month the NLRB asked federal Judge Alan S. Gold to issue an injunction ordering Goya to reinstate the workers and return to the bargaining table. It was the first time in more than a decade that the Miami labor board office had taken such aggressive action against an employer. Nevertheless Goya officials have promised to appeal any ruling against the company.

"Remember when the old man is dying?" Turienzo asks, referring to the death of Don Vito Corleone in the novel. "He tells his son if someone comes to him asking for a meeting, it's a sign of betrayal." (And the don's heir, Michael, soon receives a request for a meeting with the family's rivals.) "Well, [two Goya employees] came to me after I was fired and said [Goya president] Bob Unanue would like to meet with me," Turienzo recounts. He's sitting at his glass-top dining-room table at home in Hialeah Gardens. Fifty-four years old and with prematurely silver hair and mustache, he wears a spotless white polo shirt and jeans. His wife, Amarilis, is busy with her weekly housecleaning; their two children are at play in their bedrooms. Nothing suggests that Amarilis, a medical assistant, now pays all the family's bills or that she and her husband have no medical or dental insurance and must rely on the charity of fellow Cuban immigrants in emergencies.

"I went up to Bob's office," he continues. "We talked, but I could see right away he wasn't going to help me. Bob came to Goya as a good guy, someone who was going to fix the problems. So if he's so good, why am I still out of work?"

Many observers have asked the same question: After months of bad publicity, worker upheaval, and mounting legal bills, why won't Goya budge, even if only to take back three workers with a combined 43 years of employment?

Founded 64 years ago in New York by Prudencio and Carolina Unanue, Goya has remained privately held and family run. In 1999 Goya had 2200 employees, almost 27 percent more than the year before. It is the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States and distributes more than 1000 products under the brand names Goya, Diana, Kirby, and Nacelle. Sales last year totaled $653 million. Goya was ranked third by Hispanic Business magazine among the top 500 Hispanic businesses in the nation (Miami's MasTec was first) and is among the 50 largest advertisers within the U.S. Hispanic market, according to Strategy Research Corporation, a marketing research firm based in Miami.

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