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.

Goya is headquartered in Secaucus, New Jersey, and has thirteen facilities in the United States, the Caribbean, and Spain. Two plants in New Jersey have been unionized for decades with few problems. But Goya seems determined to stonewall a union representing 120 employees in Miami. Perhaps executives are convinced that UNITE, despite being one of the scrappiest unions anywhere, simply isn't strong enough to outlast a rich multinational business. But the company may not understand that the union is just as intransigent.

UNITE, based in New York, has teamed with its national umbrella association, the AFL-CIO, to publicize the Goya fight with rallies and press conferences coast to coast. By now the conflict has become a personal, emotional test of wills. Robert Unanue, president of Goya Foods of Florida and a grandson of the founders, asserts that the UNITE campaign has used lies and provocation in an attempt to turn public opinion against him and his company. "The union is conducting a smear campaign which borders on defamation," he says. "They don't want to help the employees. They want to destroy Goya."

That is the desperate logic of a company that has backed itself into a corner, scoffs UNITE Florida director Monica Russo. Based in Miami, Russo directs the union campaign, and she is in agreement with Unanue on one point: The standoff is now a matter of personal honor. "It's definitely the principle of the thing," she says. "This is not going to bring UNITE thousands of new members. Union dues from this little teeny place? This is a major investment for a small bargaining unit; it's a national campaign for 150 workers. It's hard to find a union willing to put these kinds of resources, this kind of heart and soul into this. [Goya] acts like if they ignore it, the whole mess will go away. It's not going away."

Beginning in January 1999, UNITE went to work on Goya with rallies, caravans, work stoppages, and boycott threats
photo courtesy Unite
Beginning in January 1999, UNITE went to work on Goya with rallies, caravans, work stoppages, and boycott threats
FIU's Bruce Nissen says the public doesn't know about the hostile tactics employers use against unions
Steve Satterwhite
FIU's Bruce Nissen says the public doesn't know about the hostile tactics employers use against unions

On one high concrete wall in the west Miami-Dade Goya warehouse, overlooking a 135,000-square-foot packing area, a sign proclaims, La gran familia Goya/Juntos hoy y en el nuevo milenio (The big Goya family/Together now and in the new millennium). The sign is lettered in primary blue, the color of Goya's logo seen on millions of cans, boxes, and plastic bags across the nation.

In Miami la familia Goya is the very picture of a big, extended Latin family. Most of the Goya warehouse/delivery workers and sales staff -- the two groups that in October 1998 voted for UNITE's representation -- were born in Cuba. Many, like Alberto Turienzo, left the island on the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Goya welcomed these hard-working newcomers and provided a sense of security and familiarity not unlike the state-supplied jobs they had previously. For many of these men (and a few women), Goya has been their first and only U.S. employer, sometimes even paying them cash until they receive their green cards. (Naturally a higher percentage of the managerial and administrative employees is U.S. born and bilingual.)

In the fall of 1998, morale was low among the warehouse/delivery workers and the sales staff, and anger on the rise. Most employees blamed their unhappiness on one person, Mary Ann Unanue, the 39-year-old daughter of Joseph Unanue, Goya's president and CEO in Secaucus. When Mary Ann Unanue became president of the Florida operations in 1995, she apparently had a belt-tightening mandate from the company's two chiefs, her father in New Jersey and his brother, Francisco (usually called Frank), president of Goya Foods of Puerto Rico. According to workers the no-nonsense Mary Ann eliminated or cut back benefits and privileges: She instituted new rules for paid vacation and emergency time off (UNITE alleges that the subsequent firing of a union member for violating the time-off rule was retaliation); eliminated overtime; reshuffled holiday scheduling; forbade personal phone calls during work hours; and made other changes.

The company also began a typical pre-election blitz to dissuade employees from voting for union representation. (An election among the warehousemen and drivers had been scheduled for mid-October, and for the sales representatives about a month later.) During mandatory staff meetings, Goya executives showed videos depicting horror stories, such as unions' roles in the downfall of Eastern and Pan Am airlines; other tapes, some in newscast format, presented stories of UNITE organizing campaigns elsewhere, in which the union either was defeated or failed to negotiate a contract after winning an election (owing to the same types of delaying and stonewalling tactics Goya would use later).

On numerous occasions, the NLRB alleges in its charges against Goya, company managers broke the law in their efforts to discourage union support. Some workers told labor-board attorneys that Mary Ann Unanue warned them that joining a union would cause them to lose benefits, possibly even their jobs. She and other executives, as described in an NLRB complaint, also "interrogated employees about their union membership, activities and sympathies and the union membership, activities and sympathies of other employees."

The National Labor Relations Act guarantees employees the right to form labor unions to bargain collectively with employers and forbids "interfering with, restraining, or coercing" employees seeking to exercise that right. Furthermore the act requires employers to negotiate "in good faith" with a union that has been certified by the NLRB to represent a bargaining unit, or group of workers.

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